After a year of a remote work environment, it's clear that even the most resilient appearing workforces are suffering from burnout. Front line professions like health care are among the worst hit, with people juggling work, children, aging parents and reporting high stress. People in factories, retail, delivery and public safety have all had to adopt difficult new routines.
My company Workhuman recently surveyed 1,000 U.S.-based employees after a year of COVID-19, and the results show that the burnout toll keeps climbing. The price is personal: Employees reported feeling anxious, overwhelmed, and less motivated. Fifty-nine percent said they've felt less human connection, 31 percent said they feel isolated, and 28 percent said they feel overwhelmed. The hardest adjustment employees have been asked to make is managing uncertainty, and that's not going to end soon. All this means lower productivity, more sick time, and less engagement.
Last year, many office workers learned that direct human interaction at work is priceless. Even the best teleworking technology can't convey body language, tone of voice, spontaneous conversation, and casual brainstorming. Most of us struggle just to avoid talking over one another. The extra cognitive and emotional energy demanded by remote work is still taking a subtle toll.
Even as you plan for a return to the office, you won't escape employee burnout without taking strategic action. Embed three actions right now into your re-entry plan to alleviate the causes and symptoms of burnout.
If you are an entrepreneur, you've always dealt with uncertainty in the marketplace. Now employees are dealing with new layers of uncertainty. They wonder how hybrid offices will work. Some afraid of losing their jobs. Some are desperate to return to the social rewards of working face-to-face; some hope their 5-day commute is gone forever. Employees who work in warehouses or in the field may not be returning to an office, but they face continuing disruption in their routines through safety measures, automation, and new expectations.
The pandemic's impact on the workplace has called forward a new level of understanding that creating a human workplace means meeting people where they are. "One-size-fits-all" solutions of the past will not be right for everyone. Facing this complexity, you, as a business leader, have been enrolled in a multi-year experiment in the evolution of work.
The vision you set for the future will define the DNA of your organization for years. A great place to start is by looking at your company's enduring values. These values will play an important role in guiding your people along the path toward your new vision. Communicate that this is not a single moment in time-- it's the start of a big change and opportunity. McKinsey found that communicating a post-COVID-19 vision and remote-relevant policies had a striking impact on individual employee productivity.
You can't eliminate or control uncertainty. You can address burnout by showing your team that you acknowledge the extreme anxiety that has compounded over the last year. Through this honesty, you can engage your workforce in creating mechanisms that fuel rather than deplete.
Consider the difference between these statements: "Things are uncertain, and we're doomed" versus "Things are uncertain, and we'll get through this together and be stronger and better than we were." Declare the benefits of living well with uncertainty: People can become more resilient, more compassionate, more innovative and freer to re-invent their ways of working.
Share the vulnerability of the moment
Philosopher Albert Schweitzer said, "Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It's the only thing." Your personal example goes a long way in giving permission for employees to share their apprehensions openly. Tell employees how you felt in the early days of the pandemic. Tell them specifically what you know about the stress they are under. Then listen to their stories, over, and over.
Recognize everyone's sacrifices. Our clients saw a surge in people expressing appreciation to their colleagues through social recognition, and leaders found that saying thanks was a gateway to admitting challenges and recognizing the good.
Highlight the most vulnerable. For example, we know that the pandemic year has hit working women hardest. PwC labeled last year's unemployment a "shecession." This is the moment to rethink the way you support working moms especially, with flexibility, empathy and understanding. A crisis can be an opportunity to bend your culture toward a greater purpose.
Realism about the present and confidence in the future are contagious and will impact your entire human enterprise for the better.
Enlist everyone in the recovery
HR, tech, finance, operations and team managers are where cultural resilience accelerates or stalls. Cut through bureaucratic processes with a regular cadence of burnout-fighting actions like these:
- Empower team leaders to authorize hybrid work arrangements, flexible hours and time off.
- Step up HR's offerings for individual and team well-being programs, including paid and unpaid leave policies.
- Form a technological well-being strategy and add human metrics to your suite of strategic data tools.
- Teach line managers to detect and clear out bureaucracy, and to become more agile in coaching and improving performance.
- Throw out ideas like work-life balance and put in place policies that move everyone toward work-life harmony.
Let this lesson of the pandemic year carry you and your organization forward: That prioritizing health and happiness will lead to stronger outcomes and greater employee sentiment. As leaders and humans, we have the responsibility to empower everyone in the organization to make the cultural change against burnout and toward a resilient human workplace.