For the first time in decades, wellbeing issues have simultaneously touched millions of people. Covid, described by the ILO as the “worst global crisis since the Second World War”, has rocked families and businesses the world over and brought a change in circumstances to millions. With stress and burnout taking their toll, research by Working Voices USA suggests that wellbeing priorities are being fuelled by a complex pattern of ongoing challenges.
Jennifer Logue, Director of the Americas at Working Voices, has been working closely with clients in exploring three key themes relating to post-pandemic work practices.
In their research on wellbeing, Jennifer and her team have discovered that clients’ priorities are not always as expected. Flexible working, changing roles and a sense of isolation contribute to stress. But these, and other factors relating to new hybrid working conditions, are only part of the problem. They follow hard on the heels of pre-existing challenges.
For many employees, hybrid working is affected by underlying difficulties that have been accumulating for months. Last year’s overnight pivot to working from home wasn’t easy. People found themselves working from bedrooms and kitchens, coping with disruption to teams and dealing with unexpected financial pressures both at work and at home. Zoom calls were crashed by kids and cats, leaders needed new empathy and tolerance, patience was needed by all. In short, work became more human.
For months, many employees were working in difficult circumstances, often hidden from view. Now, as offices reopen, they are looking to hold on to the new mindset – the empathy, tolerance and patience they have come to know.
When hope of empathy is overlooked by co-workers or managers, it can lead to strained communication and occasional tension. Clients returning to offices have been telling Jennifer they are burnt out, feeling scared and looking for an authentic connection with people they can trust. They are looking for psychological safety at work.
The World Health Organization defines burnout as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” characterised as:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- increased mental distance from one’s job, feelings of negativism or cynicism at work
- reduced professional efficacy
According to management consultants Eric Garton and Michael Mankins, employees’ engagement at work is driven by their time, talent and energy. They found that energy is eroded by a lack of recognition, leading to a fall in productivity. In a survey by HR consultancy the Achievers Workforce Institute (September 2020), 1,100 respondents were asked how organisations could better support people through the pandemic. The leading response was ‘more recognition at work’.
Energy is also reduced by what researchers have identified as the six main causes of burnout:
- Unsustainable workload
- Perceived lack of control
- Insufficient rewards for effort
- Lack of a supportive community
- Lack of fairness
- Mismatched values and skills
Surviving the pandemic
The WHO’s definition of burnout was published in 2019, when stress levels were already high. Then the pandemic hit, leading to a third of US employees working from home. According to research published in the Harvard Business Review (February 2021), workloads weren’t adjusted, staff were not given more control and flexibility, the extent of people’s struggles went unrecognised.
Ultimately, the shift in working conditions eroded energy and led to an increase in fatigue and burnout. The HBR research, based on a survey of 1,500 respondents in 46 countries, found that:
- 89% of respondents said their work life was getting worse.
- 85% said their wellbeing had declined.
- 62% of people struggling to manage their workloads had often experienced burnout.
Younger generations in particular struggled during the pandemic. The HBR research found that millennials have the highest levels of burnout. While this was partly due to less autonomy at work, lower seniority, and greater financial stresses, the biggest cause was feelings of loneliness.
In March 2021, Microsoft’s Work Trend Index similarly suggested that young people were hardest hit, with 60% of Generation Z – those aged between 18 and 25 – saying they were merely surviving or flat-out struggling, for similar reasons as millennials. Young people are also more likely to lack the resources for a separate work space at home. Rather than working from home, many people felt themselves to be “living from work”, as one person put it in a survey on remote working.
How Working Voices can support you
Before the onset of Covid, wellbeing strategies were slowly being adopted by businesses across many sectors. This trend accelerated during the pandemic when wellbeing challenges suddenly affected a great number of people. Employers saw that the future of their business was directly related to the mental health of their staff.
In encouraging them to adopt new policies on wellbeing, Covid – the shadow that shaped the last few months – catapulted many businesses into the future. Given that the looming reduction in government financial support is likely to trigger new economic turbulence, the trend towards wellbeing is set to continue. Supporting companies in these unsettling times of change, Jennifer and her team in New York have been working with colleagues in the UK in developing a new curriculum on wellbeing.
In helping companies build a culture of support, empathy and trust, the Working Voices Wellbeing curriculum looks at creating a psychologically safe environment where employees can rediscover the energy they need to thrive at work. Jennifer says “we teach people to break down those walls, we teach them emotional intelligence, how to be a better listener, how to connect.”
Employees, who genuinely feel that they and their employer share the same wellbeing objectives, have been shown to be more engaged at work and consequently more productive. In fact, the Achievers Workforce Institute survey found that respondents whose personal values were very well aligned with their company’s values were five times more likely to report being engaged than those who were not aligned.
The bottom line is clear, protecting wellbeing leads to stronger levels of engagement and higher productivity. For both employers and employees, wellbeing strategies help to safeguard the future. The return on investment can be measured in the performance of people who feel energised and trusted and ready to fight another day.