People are tired. Between a global pandemic, economic crisis, social unrest, and political upheaval, the past year has been physically and emotionally draining for just about everyone, and perhaps most for essential workers.

Across industries, workers struggling with pandemic fatigue are facing burnout more than ever. For leaders, keeping these employees engaged and motivated is a challenge in itself. While some leaders are turning to incentives like gift cards and cash to help support employees, others are taking a softer approach, investing in relationships and focusing on workplace communication.

Money Talks

When the pandemic began, the hospitality industry fell off a cliff, says Liz Neumark, founder and CEO of Great Performances, a catering company in New York City. She knew keeping everyone employed would be difficult until her business could find another source of revenue apart from events, which eventually came in the form of preparing meals for essential workers and people unable to quarantine at home. While some of her employees, such as those in sales or event production, saw salary reductions, chefs, kitchen staff, and other employees making food for essential workers kept their full salaries and got help with transportation as well.  

The founders of P. Terry's, an Austin, Texas-based fast-food restaurant chain, give employees gift cards and cash to help pay for groceries and offer them interest-free loans. They also incentivize employees to participate in community and civic causes, including paying hourly wages for volunteer work.

Justin Spannuth, chief operating officer of Unique Snacks, a sixth-generation, family-operated hard pretzel maker in Reading, Pennsylvania, increased hourly wages by $2 for all 85 of his employees. The company also hired additional temporary employees to provide a backup workforce. Spannuth says the move helped persuade employees with possible symptoms to stay at home by easing the guilt that employees can have about not coming in and potentially increasing the workload on their colleagues. 

"The last thing we wanted our employees to do was get worn out from working too many hours and then have their immune system compromised because of it," says Spannuth.

Helping Employees Connect

Andrea Ahern, vice president of Mid Florida Material Handling, a material handling company in Orlando, Florida, says it was difficult to keep morale up when the business was clearly struggling; employees were uncertain about the company's future, and their own. To help ease the stress, the company held a wide array of picnic-style meals in the company's parking lot. It was a light distraction that still followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Now, she says, morale has started to rise.

"With the release of the vaccine and the so-called 'light at the end of the tunnel,' we're starting to see the industry get a lift in activity, and associates feel good when they know their jobs aren't at risk. However, it wasn't always this way."

These kinds of events can, of course, also take place virtually. Company leaders across industries are encouraging staff to treat Zoom as a virtual water cooler. But while casual online gatherings after work can help colleagues maintain friendly relationships, they can also contribute to "Zoom fatigue"--the drained feeling that comes after a long day of video calls, which often require more concentration than in-person meetings.

Matt McCambridge, co-founder and CEO of Eden Health, a primary/collaborative care practice based in New York, says while his teams hold regular virtual water coolers, they switch it up. For example, the company hosted an interactive "dueling pianos" virtual event over the holidays, as well as a magic show. 

Better Communication From the Top

Communicating support work-life balance at a time when many people are remote and facing trauma is critical. Neumark notes that when her catering company was pivoting and in the process of providing hundreds, if not thousands, of meals, the team was relying mostly on sheer adrenaline. Months later, now that the novelty is gone and fatigue has fully set in, the boundaries she set are crucial.

One rule, for example, is weekends off, unless there's an urgent, unavoidable request. "The weeks are still so intense, and people need their private time right now," says Neumark.

It's essential that leaders understand the issues their employees may be facing and not try to gloss over them, says Dr. Benjamin F. Miller, a psychologist and chief strategy officer of Well Being Trust, a foundation aimed at advancing mental and social health. "When your boss is pretending that everything is OK, it doesn't create a conducive work environment for someone to talk about having a bad day," says Miller. That's one reason virtual water coolers often fail, he notes. While they're great at getting people together, there's little benefit if people can't speak openly and honestly.

It's also OK to tell employees that you, as a leader, are not having an easy time. Showing vulnerability doesn't show weakness, Miller adds. You're setting an example that shows that it's OK to be honest and acknowledge that not everyone is not having the best time. If you aren't aware that someone is in a crisis, he says, you may lose the opportunity to reach out to that person and help.