How Freelancers Can Help Alleviate Pandemic-related Burnout

11/18/20206 min read
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Matthew M. F. Miller
Editor-in-Chief for
Matt Miller is Toptal Editor-in-Chief.
How Freelancers Can Help Alleviate Pandemic-related Burnout

Pandemic-related burnout is wreaking havoc on the workforce, with many companies scrambling to fill productivity gaps, calm increasingly stressed-out employees, and slow attrition. Women are leaving the workforce at a disproportionate rate compared to their male counterparts due to the increased demands of unpaid labor at home, primarily those associated with virtual school.

According to Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half, employee weariness is pervasive – 34% of workers polled by the company reported increased burnout on the job today versus one year ago. We asked him how companies can prepare for and manage pandemic work burnout and the benefits of hiring freelancers to bridge the productivity gap.

What challenges does increased employee burnout pose for companies?

Paul McDonald: The number one challenge is retention, because a lot of people are thinking about leaving the workforce even though they need the income. Balancing life and work has become overwhelming for people. Some employees might even decide to sit out a few months until things get better. The second challenge we’re seeing is that more individuals are going on leave and taking advantage of some of the health and medical benefits offered by the company. And since companies are already down staff because they furloughed or reduced their workforces, they're finding that the work's not getting done.

What’s the best way for companies to ensure that work gets done?

PM: The solution we've seen is that temporary employees, freelancers, consultants, or project professionals are being hired to help fill the gap.

Once a gap has been identified, how should companies make the choice between redistributing that work to current employees and hiring freelancers?

PM: If you're fortunate enough to have enough people to spread out the unfinished work, I think that's the way to handle it. Good managers will explain to the team that they’re all in this together. That said, if everybody's stressed and stretched too far, bringing in an extra set of hands to help with project deadlines is the thing to do.

Essentially, it all comes under leadership and management 101 – make sure your people feel valued, that they understand their roles, and that the communication about why you’re bringing in project professionals is clear. Also, repeat it. Don't just say it once. Say it once, let it sink in, say it again, bring it back up in the next meeting, and make sure that everyone understands that these project professionals are part of the team.

Why are more companies open to hiring freelance talent today?

PM: Now that the geographic boundaries have been dropped and people are pivoting to work from home and remote work on a long-term basis, companies can be more flexible. They're hiring people in Denver, Colorado for a company that's headquartered in the Bay Area, or they're hiring somebody who lives in Boise for a company that's headquartered in Denver.

Why is that a benefit?

PM: Think about a cyber security expert prior to the pandemic – or a data scientist, a data analytics specialist – a company might've had that position open for six months or a year looking for the right individual. Now they've been able to find that person because they've dropped the geographic boundaries. They're getting individuals on board that heretofore weren't available to them.

What message does it send to employees when companies hire on-demand talent or freelancers?

PM: Employees will feel like they are finally getting help – finally getting support because they’ve been working massive amounts of overtime during the pandemic. So, given that the person is qualified and a good addition to the staff, temporary consulting sends a positive message. It increases morale when employees have that support.

How should leadership include employees in discussions about strategies to bridge the productivity gap and alleviate employee stress?

PM: First of all, at the executive level, I think everybody needs to be on the same page about how they're going to execute a plan. Then, each manager needs to gather their team to have a good listening session about their concerns and ideas. This smaller group is within your span of control, and it’s vital to hear people out, listen, and empathize. Help them understand that there are some things that are out of the company’s control and others that are in their control. Managers need to emphasize those things that are within their control and how employees can be a part of that solution.

What are those things, and what should they be doing to help working parents, especially working mothers?

PM: Stress both time off and employee assistance programs, some of which might help fill childcare gaps. Also, make sure employees are clear on their deadlines and responsibilities, while at the same time being flexible in between those deadlines. It's not always checking up at 6 p.m. at night. Really guard yourself as a manager against that instinct to constantly check-in. Leave your employees alone because they have enough on their plates right now. Also, be flexible, especially for working parents and moms. It’s OK to work 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and then take two hours to get the kids out of the house. Come back at noon, have lunch, and at 12:30 p.m. – away you go. Take another break in the afternoon to help with snack time or homework. As long as the work's getting done, just be flexible.

What does it look like when an employer or manager doesn't value that flexibility and self-care?

PM: They’ve probably seen productivity and morale slip over the past seven months. Maybe attendance has slipped and there have been more time off requests for a medical nature, or even more attrition. Employers that do value self-care are seeing the opposite of that ­– productivity has stayed the same or increased, the morale is high, employee personalities haven’t changed, or, actually, might have improved because of a feeling that we're all in this together. That connectivity is what they're valuing.

What are the most important leadership qualities to limit work burnout and employee attrition?

PM: Leading with empathy has been so critical. Early on, we were hearing from our clients – the ones that were seeing this pivot to work from home – and those that managed it the best were using humor, empathy, a “we're-in-this-together” attitude, and direct communication about what was going well, what wasn’t going well, and what types of impacts coronavirus had on the organization. They offered transparency about furloughs and firings up front. They let employees know the impact on revenue and how the company was addressing those issues. And then, they were consistent. I think those are the keys that helped corporations survive and ultimately thrive throughout this pandemic.

What should employers do going forward to prevent and manage burnout?

PM: As the pandemic wears on, burnout becomes a higher risk. As we move into winter months, in some parts of the country, you can't go outside as often, but you must encourage your employees and yourself to take the time to be healthy.  I know that I boosted up my exercise. As hard as it was, it's helping, and I know meditation is helping individuals too. And walking, even if it’s just 20 minutes to clear your head. As a manager, we all know that if you don't take care of yourself, you're not going to be a good leader. So, practice what you preach – communicate often, lead with empathy, and be the leader that you read about in books. That's going to help your team through this.

Matthew M. F. Miller
Editor-in-Chief for
Matt Miller is Toptal Editor-in-Chief.