Recent data by OC Tanner, a worldwide employee recognition company, has revealed that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a large increase in employee burnout. According to its 2021 Global Culture Report – which surveyed 40,000 employees – Coronavirus has increased rates of burnout by 15% globally, while it rises by up to 81% in what it calls “non-thriving” company cultures. UK workers took 68% more days off than normal in order to avoid work, while 53% of employees admitted they now “dreaded” doing their work. In addition, of those surveyed, 38% admitted that things they used to tolerate were now starting to bother them. Nearly half (48%) confessed that they had nothing more to give in their job.

According to the data, those organisations who have high levels of staff engagement are better equipped to prevent burnout. The research found companies with “thriving cultures” are currently experiencing just a 1% drop in engagement. For “non-thriving cultures”, this figure is 52%. Although it is difficult to pinpoint what a “thriving culture” is by definition, these figures will come as no surprise to regular readers of this Bulletin.

We have known for some time that, if one employee is experiencing burnout, it can affect an entire team, customers and ultimately the business itself. Employee burnout has three characteristics: emotional exhaustion, a lack of energy and job dissatisfaction. The most common causes of burnout during the pandemic have been identified as: overwhelming job demands, conflicting job requirements, a lack of proper resources or training and a shortage of constructive feedback.

Many employees working from home have been adjusting to a new routine of work, childcare, home-schooling their children and, in some cases, taking care of sick relatives. The stressors from coronavirus add to chronic stress that many employees already experience. While keeping in contact with team members via communication tools is positive, some people thrive on human interaction, which causes them even further mental distress during this time apart. The pressure of it all, plus the uncertainty of coronavirus and lockdown, has increased feelings of burnout and decreased employee engagement.

Another cause of employee burnout is the expectation that if you are working from home, you are always available and can take on more work. Some workers have reported feeling overwhelmed by the additional workload and lack of downtime. Employers can help their employees with burnout by allowing flexible work schedules, providing open communication channels, and having honest discussions about managing workloads when working remotely.

It is obvious to many that individuals working from home, and essential workers, need to find ways to help manage or relieve mental health issues caused by these challenging times. The key questions are whether the line managers are equipped to find out whether their employees are suffering from these issues and, when they do, they are able to help. For example, do they have the skills and confidence to coach employees toward these potential solutions:

  • Encourage their employees to remember to take breaks, to go outside and take a walk to help clear their heads.
  • To understand their stressors by acknowledging where their stress comes from and to understand the clues that could indicate that something might be wrong. For example, symptoms may include trouble concentrating, irritability, low energy and tiredness.
  • Utilising mental health services by ensuring employees have information about what is available to them.
  • Helping with time management and empowering employees to control their daily tasks while encouraging them to keep reasonable work hours and take time off to refresh.

It is a fact, however, that women in the workplace have always carried a larger burden when balancing work and home responsibilities. The additional pressure brought about by the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated that. Although the shift to remote work has been a challenging adjustment for everyone, women have been tasked with a greater portion of the workload, as they attempt to balance their responsibilities both in and out of the virtual office. LeanIn.Org and SurveyMonkey research reveals that women who work full-time and have a partner are putting in 71.2 hours each week on housework and caregiving, while men are spending 51.5 hours per week on those tasks.

While working women are struggling disproportionately under the pressure of work and home responsibilities, many employers are not sufficiently investing in the mental health and wellness of their female population. At worst, they are in danger of losing half of their talent pool through higher rates of burnout among these female employees. Benefits like an employee assistance program with an extended care management program, as well as offering clinical wellness solutions, can be critical resources for women who are facing burnout.

Mental health benefits need to be at the top of an employer’s priorities for both male and female employees if organisations are going to help their people get through this crisis. Employers should not find themselves in a position of racing to find solutions to mental health issues as they come up but should already have them in place when an employee says they are feeling burnt out or shows signs of being overwhelmed.

Managers need to recognise when an employee is coming to their breaking point and use warning signs like a slowdown in productivity, social withdrawal, increased irritability and excessive worry to start acting like coaches and help their people become more tuned in to the stressors. They must also help their people to become open to solutions. In the current circumstances, formal disciplinary and poor work performance policies should be the last of a long list of resorts.


Derek Luckhurst is Training and Development Director at the IPA