3 ways leaders can help ease workplace stress and avoid employee burnout

employees
Employees who feel they can bring their whole selves to work perform the best.

  • Reports of burnout, stress, and loneliness levels are high as employees continue working from home.
  • Improving these conditions and rebuilding psychological safety will require leaders to step up.
  • Show gratitude for your employees, check-in frequently, and build resilience into the workforce.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The crisis is subsiding, but its wounds run deep. For all the heroic efforts of employees to keep companies operating, the past 16-plus months have left a powerful psychological scar.

A recent Workhuman survey of more than 3,000 US workers reveals a workforce in trouble. The data shows 48% of employees agree they’ve experienced burnout, 61% feel elevated stress levels, and 32% agree that they’ve felt lonely at work.

The emotional toll has been greater for working parents (especially mothers). Observed differences in stress and burnout levels between men and women appear to be related to caregiving responsibilities as well as the disproportionate loss of jobs among women.

Early in the crisis, for example, mothers with young children decreased their work hours four to five times more than fathers. The survey, which asked seven questions related to psychological safety, also discovered that non-White employees experienced lower levels than their White co-workers.

Read more: I manage money for ultra-high net worth clients and experienced burnout early in my career. Here are 4 things I did to recover and improve my quality of life.

The impact of psychological safety

Google’s People Operations team found that the number one driver of successful teams is psychological safety, an environment where people feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of one another.

When people feel safe, they will innovate, cooperate, and show up as their full selves at work, which are critical qualities in today’s agile environment. Conversely, lack of psychological safety in the workforce is corrosive; it endangers all plans to return to the “next normal.”

Rebuilding psychological safety after a crisis requires leaders to speak candidly about the toll employees have suffered, and show the way forward with a more human-centered approach to managing:

1. Say “thank you” more often

“Recognition builds lasting connections between people,” said Workhuman CEO Eric Mosley. “Great leaders instinctively know that the more human connection in a company, the better it performs.”

It’s easy to see why receiving a “thank you” makes an employee feel appreciated. What’s less obvious is that showing appreciation for someone’s efforts improves the positive feelings for the giver as well. Mutual recognition and gratitude help people take off their emotional armor. When employees do that, they feel safer as well as more connected.

2. Check in with employees more frequently

People who check in with their manager at least once a week experience higher psychological safety than those who check in less frequently, and yet only 29% of respondents in the Workhuman survey said they check in with their manager every week.

IBM is taking the lead on changing that statistic, emphasizing more frequent feedback for everyone. CHRO Nickle LaMoreaux, who spoke with Workhuman co-founder and CEO Eric Mosley, cites it as one of IBM’s four priorities, saying, “Feedback is as important as growth, innovation, and inclusivity, because you can’t have those first three elements without feedback.”

3. Build resilience into your culture

While you might not be able to prevent the next crisis from happening, you can take steps now to build resilience into the workforce, enabling people to deal well with external stressors.

For example, psychological safety can become part of your hybrid workplace design as you return to the office. You can consider formalizing appreciation and thank-yous with a data-rich social recognition system. You can strengthen diversity, inclusion, and belonging efforts by helping managers understand and mitigate unconscious biases.

Imagine how much time and resources would be salvaged if your organization moves the needle on psychological safety. If all employees, and especially underrepresented groups, feel more comfortable sharing ideas and bringing their whole selves to contribute, the “next normal” won’t just be a recovery from the crisis but a fresh start. There will never be a better time than now to build psychological safety into your culture.

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Amazon’s AI-powered cameras are a double-edged sword that could make drivers safer, but also force the company to sacrifice productivity, a transportation expert says

GettyImages 1232149494 UNITED STATES - APRIL 6: Amazon driver Shawndu Stackhouse delivers packages in Northeast Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, April 6, 2021. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Amazon’s drivers must meet demanding productivity quotas as high as 300 packages per day, which drivers say require them to cut corners.

Amazon recently installed AI-powered surveillance cameras in its delivery trucks that monitor drivers’ behavior in what the company says is an effort to reduce risky driving behaviors and collisions.

Whether the cameras ultimately accomplish that goal may depend on how much productivity Amazon is willing to sacrifice in order to keep drivers safe, according to a transportation expert who studies AI-powered safety systems.

Amazon’s cameras, which are made by a startup called Netradyne, record 100% of the time that the vehicle’s ignition is on, tracking workers’ hand movements and even facial expressions and audibly alerting them in real-time when the AI detects what it suspects is distracted or risky driving.

Almost immediately, drivers pushed back – and one even resigned, according to the Thomson Reuters Foundation – citing concerns about the cameras eliminating virtually any privacy they once had, as well as potentially making them less productive.

Several drivers told Insider’s Avery Hartmans and Kate Taylor they’re worried about Amazon penalizing them for using their phones on the job, even though they need the devices for navigation. Others said the additional safety precautions they’re taking to avoid committing infractions, like stopping twice at an intersection or driving slower, are making it hard to keep up with the company’s notoriously demanding delivery quotas, which can run as high 300 packages per day.

But that’s exactly the trade-off Amazon may be forced to make, Matt Camden, a senior research associate at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, told Insider.

“If a fleet wants to reduce risky driving behaviors, it’s critical to look at why the drivers are doing that in the first place, and usually, it’s because there’s other consequences that are driving that behavior,” such as “unrealistic delivery times,” Camden said.

“They want to keep their job. If they miss their delivery time, that’s going to look bad – they could be fired, they could lose their livelihood,” he said. “And if [the delivery time] is unrealistic, then they have to find a way to get it done.”

Instead, Camden said, companies like Amazon need to approach technology-based safety systems “from a more positive standpoint, from a training standpoint and say: ‘We’re not going to nitpick you. We just want you to be safe.'”

“Netradyne cameras are used to help keep drivers and the communities where we deliver safe,” Amazon spokesperson Alexandra Miller told Insider in a statement.

“Don’t believe the self-interested critics who claim these cameras are intended for anything other than safety,” she added.

Netradyne could not be reached for comment.

Safety first

Miller told Insider in Amazon’s pilot test of the Netradyne cameras from April to October 2020, accidents decreased 48%, stop-sign violations decreased 20%, driving without a seatbelt decreased 60%, and distracted driving decreased 45%.

However, independent research on the Netradyne “Driveri” camera system Amazon uses, and AI camera systems generally, is more sparse.

In an informational video for its camera rollout, Amazon claimed “the camera systems” can “reduce collisions by 1/3 through in-cab warnings,” citing studies by an investment bank called First Analysis as well as VTTI, where Camden works. (First Analysis could not be reached for comment).

Amazon didn’t respond to questions about which studies it was referring to in the video.

Camden said VTTI hasn’t looked at Netradyne’s cameras specifically, but that a study it conducted in 2010 found “video-based monitoring systems” without real-time alerts or AI prevented between 38.1% and 52.2% of “safety-related events” when tested on two different company’s delivery fleets.

But those safety benefits were a result of funneling data from the cameras to safety managers, who could then give feedback to drivers to help them drive safer.

“We can’t say that these AI-powered cameras would reduce 10%, 20%, 30%, 50% [of safety incidents],” Camden said. “We can’t get that specific number yet because we haven’t done the research, but it makes sense that in-vehicle alerts do work to address risky driving,'” Camden said.

Similar technologies do show promise, he said, citing VTTI research that showed real-time lane-departure warnings reducing crashes by more than 45%.

But Camden also said when VTTI did a study last year looking at why some delivery fleets are safer than others, it ultimately came down to which ones had a strong “safety culture” and were “prioritizing and valuing safety, at least on the equal level as productivity, if not higher.”

“The safest ones typically said: ‘If you’re tired, we don’t care if you miss your delivery, we want you to stop. We want you to take a break. If you have to go to the bathroom, we want you to stop and go to the bathroom. We don’t want you to feel pressured to keep going.'”

Camden said those fleets made it clear that drivers could reject unrealistic delivery times and wouldn’t be penalized if the route took longer because of traffic or construction.

“It’s easier said than done, of course, because productivity is driving the business. They have to make money, they have to keep their customers happy,” he said.

“But really, it comes down to creating the policies and the programs to support safety, support the driver, because we don’t want them speeding. We don’t want the drivers cutting corners to try to make a delivery.”

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4 tips for reopening your workplace safely from a COVID compliance officer for Netflix and Amazon Prime

coworkers, Asian coworker with white coworker, diverse colleagues
Even as vaccines rollout, employers will need to stay vigilant with COVID precautions.

  • Demerie Danielson left her nursing job in fall 2020 to become a COVID compliance officer for VIP StarNetwork.
  • She now ensures the sets of Netflix and Amazon productions comply with COVID safety regulations.
  • Her tips to safely reopen your workplace include planning for rule breakers and staying strict.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Almost a year after COVID-19 shut down offices across America, many physical workplaces remain in stasis. But six months ago, Demerie Danielson was hired to help bring at least one industry back to working in person: the film industry.

Danielson, a registered nurse, left her job at an Albuquerque hospital for a brand-new position: COVID Compliance Officer for VIP StarNetwork, a health care contractor for major local movie and TV sets. It’s a subsidiary of Inverse Medical, a medical equipment supplier. With her medical expertise in her back pocket, Danielson learned how to safely reopen a workplace on the fly – and has since done so for seven Netflix and Amazon Prime productions, including the upcoming film “The Harder They Fall,” starring Jonathan Majors and Idris Elba.

Her experience could prove crucial for America’s business owners, especially those pondering their own return to the office amid the country’s vaccine rollout. Here are Danielson’s top four recommendations.

Tailor your solutions to your company’s specific needs

There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution here, Danielson said. Each of her productions have different COVID-19 plans, customized to the number of people involved and the types of locations being used. As New Mexico’s coronavirus guidance shifts month to month, she adjusts each film set accordingly, such as modulating the amount of sanitization on touch points like doorknobs as local cases have risen and fallen.

Start by gauging the risk, particularly around air circulation and ability to socially distance. Then build protocols around personal protective equipment, COVID-19 testing, and surface sanitization. When in doubt, Danielson added, refer to your state’s or city’s local COVID guidance.

“We’re always going to want to make sure we have the proper filtration of air flow if we’re inside of a building,” she said. “We’re going to always make sure we’re keeping people socially distanced.” But employees should know, she said, that your policies could shift at a moment’s notice.

Prioritize quick-turnaround COVID-19 testing

As vaccines are still sparsely available, your testing protocol could make or break your return to the office. Danielson typically divides workers into two categories: People who interact regularly with each other, and people who only visit in-person occasionally. Infrequent visitors need two consecutive negative tests before they show up to work, while regulars get tested every single day – sometimes multiple times per day.

The daily testing only works because VIP StarNetwork’s labs can turn around test results in a matter of hours. Even a 24-hour turnaround, Danielson said, wouldn’t be fast enough. Contracting with a private lab to achieve that goal is a potentially expensive proposition: Johonniuss Chemweno, CEO of both VIP StarNetwork and Inverse Medical, said his company typically spends five to 20% of a film’s overall budget on COVID safety. One of Danielson’s recent projects, Zack Snyder’s upcoming Netflix movie “Army of the Dead,” has an estimated budget of $70 million. 

Still, Danielson stressed that until you can afford to build a truly rigorous same-day testing program, you simply can’t risk bringing your workers back on a daily basis. “If you don’t have the opportunity to get your results in a matter of hours, you could possibly expose all the people within your business and have to shut them down,” she said. “Shutting your business back down for days or weeks again is costly.”

Plan for rule breakers

Most of your employees will probably be just as dedicated as you are to staying safe and healthy, particularly if their ability to work depends on it. Some, however, could push the boundaries on your mask-wearing or testing policies, and you need a plan to deal with them in advance.

Danielson said that most protocol violations she’s seen come from a place of habit – people accidentally behaving like they did pre-pandemic – so she rarely reacts angrily. Rather, she works to gain the offender’s trust through honesty and education, explaining why the policies exist and how they connect to local positivity rates. Repeat offenders get sent home, as they’ve become health hazards for everyone else.

“You don’t really get to say no,” Danielson said. “You’re going to have to do it if you want to work.”

Stay strict, even as vaccines roll out

It’ll be tempting to relax your standards for vaccinated employees, especially as vaccines become more available to the general public this year. Not so fast, Danielson said: Until more is known about how well the vaccines are working, particularly against multiple new and highly contagious virus strains, you’ll need to stay vigilant.

Plus, your employees might be vaccinated, but their families might not – and it’s yet unknown whether vaccinated people can still spread the virus as carriers. “Social distancing is going to be around for a while,” Danielson said. “We’re going to need to keep using the protocols that we’ve implemented for sanitizing high-touch areas. Even the need to test, I feel like that’s still going to be around for a while, until we know how well our vaccines are working.”

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