It’s 2022 and after the most challenging two years in recent history, burnout and stress levels have reached a record high. Some call it pandemic fatigue and the problem is a global one. According to the American Psychological Association, nearly 60% of employees are reporting negative impacts of work-related stress, including lack of interest, motivation, or energy – that’s a 36% increase since 2019, the last time life looked ‘normal’. Hybrid work is the buzzword of the moment, but as companies re-configure daily work-life there’s a key issue organizations must address, namely, what can they do to improve employee wellbeing? Because an employee doesn’t experience wellbeing challenges alone. Employers play a role too – both good and bad.
The current state of employee wellbeing and the impact of Covid-19
According to a survey by the Harvard Business Review, the vast majority of us are struggling with workplace wellbeing as the pandemic continues. 50% of people reported a decline in their mental health; 20% reported feelings of isolation and lack of connection and a further 20% said they’re struggling to get their personal needs met. And then there’s the problem of burnout. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that’s characterized by exhaustion or lack of energy, job-related negative or cynical feelings, and reduced effectiveness. Since the start of the pandemic, an overwhelming amount of employees reported experiencing burnout symptoms. In a recent study, 75% of employees in the United States and almost a third in the Asia -Pacific region are experiencing symptoms of burnout. In addition, major trends include growth in disengagement and struggles to deal with increased job demands. Words like ‘untethered’ and ‘aimless’ were used when respondents were asked about their state of mind, while others complain they never feel like they are done for the day. Hard work and a “we can get through this” attitude are just not enough.
When we first sheltered in place at home, we would never have thought that two years later we’d still be working from our makeshift offices. We would have expected the virus to have gone away and for work-life balance to have righted itself. But many of us are working longer hours than ever before, and feeling burned out and isolated from months of remote work. The cumulative effect of this is disillusionment and an increase in negativity is clear. We lack motivation and energy and the past two years have had a highly negative effect on our mental health.
What have we learned about wellbeing?
Wellbeing declined for 85% of employees during the pandemic. People continue to work harder and longer hours, dealing with organizational challenges all while feeling more and more disconnected from their co-workers. Younger and historically underrepresented workers are struggling the most. 13% of people report home-life struggles with more women than men reporting challenges with parenting and personal time.
The time has come to prioritize wellbeing. Research shows that even before the Covid-19 crisis, workplace stress was costing the United States approximately $180 billion annually. Interestingly the problem isn’t confined to middle-aged employees with three decades of working life behind them. Another study found that 68% of Millennials and 81% of Gen Zers have left roles for mental health reasons. A paradigm shift is needed so that employers offer more sustainable ways of working; one in which wellness and psychological safety aren’t sidelined in favor of productivity and profitability, but are actually front and center from the start.
How can organizations support wellbeing in light of findings?
It’s more complicated than simply organizing a lunchtime running club or sending employees branded water bottles and other merchandise. Organizations need to commit to changing workplace culture at every level. Culture shift requires true change at both the top and bottom of every organization. One of the key elements required is the creation of a stigma-free culture, in which employees feel safe and confident to share their struggles. In the new wellbeing-focused workplace, HR teams will strategically educate senior management on what’s required. Other changes can help, too: a positive team climate where every employee feels valued and confident enough to express their thoughts on both the work itself and how work is carried out can help create feelings of positivity in the workplace. Yet just 43% of employees feel they have this positive climate in their team.
Employers also need to encourage employees to bring their authentic selves to work and practice empathy on a company-wide level. Casually asking “Hey, how’s it going?” is not enough. Instead, co-workers should be asking – “Hey, how’s it going – and what can I do to help?” At a management level, empathy and authenticity are extremely important. It’s also vital to offer sustainable ways of working. Flexibility is a critical component; during the pandemic, many workers switched to remote work, and now that this has become the new norm, employees can juggle home-life and work-life in a way that suits them best. From working hours to location, employees now have more say over what their working day looks like than ever before. However, a company’s return-to-office plans can negatively impact employees’ mental health now that they have gotten used to a hybrid schedule. Policies around in-person versus remote work and the lack of work-life balance or flexibility-based are likely to cause friction.
Workplaces must figure out how to support wellbeing and create a healthy culture, one without overworked or overstressed employees. For starters, curbing excessive demands and guiding employees on strengthening relationships at work can help. Some companies are re-purposing office space, taking out desks and planting nature gardens; swapping board rooms for yoga studios to prioritize wellbeing among their staff.
Looking Ahead: Achieving success and monitoring results
Now that the scale of the problem is clear, what can companies do to help? Experts agree human behaviors aren’t easily shifted overnight, employers should look past one-off training events and invest in large-scale leadership programs. Open dialogue and direct feedback mechanisms to senior management can help, as can investment in development programs that tap into our emotional thought centers and create memorable, ‘wow’ moments. This could be anything from a facilitated vision board workshop to drama-based training using role-play, in which employees work through stress points and come out calmer, brighter, and more confident. Introspection is something employers can encourage, and get immediate results from. Workers will be able to shed the layers of stress that have built up over the past two years and re-kindle their imaginations, something that home-working and endless Zoom calls haven’t necessarily cultivated.
It’s important to make self-development a key part of leaders’ daily lives. This means managers shouldn’t hide when they themselves are struggling. If a manager talks openly about not having all the answers, it can encourage employees to speak up about their struggles too. As for creating a healthy work environment, HR can encourage wellness awareness and healthy habits, such as stretching, drinking more water, or taking screen breaks. This, and removing the stigma around taking breaks, seeking help, and logging off at a reasonable hour, can help. These may sound like small details, but it’s from bite-sized building blocks that real change will come.
To build a motivated workforce with high morale, self-esteem, and a shared collective purpose, employers need to prioritize wellbeing. When our wellbeing needs are being met – we feel seen and heard, and able to speak up for what we require without fear of consequences. Wellbeing should be treated as an actual skill; as something that can be cultivated from best practices in the workplace. If an employee needed to learn a new software program to get their job done, you’d send him or her on a training course. Why not adopt the same approach to wellbeing? Covid-19 has been challenging on every level and has kickstarted massive societal shifts. Organizations now need to address deep cultural changes and strive to create workplaces that value qualities such as empathy, compassion, and vulnerability. It’s not enough to leave self-care practices to those who already speak wellness. In a post-pandemic era, wellness and welfare will be key facets of every workplace. When true change comes, the business benefits will speak for themselves.
Ready to improve employee wellbeing in your organization? Check out Montara’s powerful wellbeing insights today.