In the Spring of 2020, I was coaching a finance executive who did not take a step outside his house for 5 straight days (despite beautiful spring weather).
He was working longer hours and seeing his family less even though he was sharing the same four walls with them 24/7. In the years before COVID-19, work-related burnout had been a growing issue. The pandemic accelerated several trends, and near the top of the list — increased work-related stress and anxiety. According to a MetLife report in early 2020, 66% of employers expected a mental health crisis within three years.¹
We believe that the crisis is upon us and now is the time to address it.
The trends for workplace burnout have been in place for decades.
According to a 2019 Korn Ferry study, overall employee stress levels "have risen nearly 20% in three decades."² In the years before COVID-19, the primary drivers for our clients were:
Too many :
By the end of 2019, 67% of full-time employees in the US felt some form of work-related burnout.³ Then COVID-19 hit.
Nothing like a once-in-a-century pandemic to take an already challenging situation and make it worse.
While burnout rates are elevated across all levels, a survey by Development Dimensions International found that “86% of high-potential employees are feeling burnout, and they’re twice as likely to leave compared to their peers.”⁴⁵ And it’s not just employees who are burning out at record levels, so too are leaders. Many leaders are learning the hard way that while work can be remote, leadership cannot.
The same study by DDI showed that the majority of business executives don’t think they are effective at leading virtually.⁵ For many leaders, it’s their own stress and anxiety that is driving their desire to get people back to offices as soon as possible. However, many of these leaders are missing the fact that by issuing blanket policies about the return to office, they are only adding to the burnout that their employees are feeling.
A recent survey of over 4,500 global employees who worked onsite pre-pandemic and were fully remote during the pandemic revealed that, “100% of them felt some anxiety about returning to work. 77% cited being exposed to COVID-19 as their top source of anxiety, followed by less flexibility at 71% and commuting to work at 58%”.⁶
Long before Zoom Gloom existed, Unilever was pioneering the importance of employee wellness.
Seven years before COVID-19 hit, they began a journey to change their culture and incorporate mental health into their learning program. They have used both internal resources and external coaches in a coordinated program. The results have not only led to healthier employees but have had a significant impact on their business.
According to their CHRO, Leena Nair, the company has realized a $2.50 return for every $1.00 invested in employee wellness.⁷⁸
Another example of a comprehensive and visionary approach to this crisis was recently announced by Verizon Media, Kellogg Company, Snap and Spotify.
They have combined resources to launch a joint program called “Mind Together.”⁸ It’s an initiative to “address mental health and set a new standard in how employees are supported at work.” The goal is to develop awareness through improved communications, offering mental health education programs, and hosting conversations with mental health thought leaders. The four companies plan to meet regularly to share feedback, course correct and develop blueprints for future plans.
How do you know if you, or a member of your team, are experiencing work-related burnout?
The Maslach Burnout Inventory - General Survey (MBI-GS) is the leading measure of burnout and has been validated over 35 + years of extensive research. The survey focuses on 3 specific areas; exhaustion, cynicism, and professional efficacy.
Exhaustion is often one of the first signs of work-related burnout and also one of the easiest to identify in yourself and in others. Keep an eye out for employees that start arriving late, and look or act unusually tired or run down. Notice statements like:
Cynicism or indifference toward projects, clients, and/or co-workers is often correlated with burnout as well. Cynicism can be more difficult to detect, but can be sensed in defeated body language, think: eye-rolling, crossed arms, or mumbling under the breath; as well as through unanswered emails or phone calls. Cynicism can sound like:
Professional efficacy measures whether a person believes they will be effective at their work moving forward as well as a sense of satisfaction with past and present accomplishments. Lack of professional efficacy can also be subtle; some cues include submitting uncharacteristically low-quality work, missing important meetings or deadlines, or an overall sense of disengagement or distraction. A lack of professional efficacy might sound like
Leaders who are in tune with their teams are more likely to notice these early signs of burnout and are therefore better able to address them more effectively.
Awareness always precedes change.
Comprehensive and consistent educational programming can empower leaders and employees to bring awareness to areas of concern as well as arm them with the tools, resources, and confidence to address issues as they arise and before they become problematic.
Set the example by attending the workshops and using the resources yourself, and watch your team follow suit.
Mindful leaders are present and in tune with both themselves and their teams.
When challenges arise, mindful leaders approach them with curiosity and openness. Obstacles will then become an important opportunity for understanding, presence, awareness, and even large-scale transformation to take place.
Mindful leaders are able to recognize and express appreciation for the hard work and efforts of their team and are adept at delivering both positive and negative feedback with compassion and warmth. They guide with humility and grace, recognizing their own strengths and weaknesses, and have a willingness to ask for help or advice when it’s needed.
Teams with mindful leaders experience an enhanced sense of cohesion, collaboration, and group engagement; all attributes of a secure and thriving workplace.
I (Carolyn) vividly remember my orientation days at the well-known NYC hospital I worked at in my 20’s.
Everyone, from entry-level employees to top doctors, was required to attend, and the overall purpose was made crystal clear: we are committed to excellence, community service, and hope, and every employee is an integral part of this community; what you do matters. Top-down messaging to that end was consistently repeated through regular programming, education, special events, and reminders.
A clearly defined shared purpose helps people visualize how their work directly contributes to a larger goal. It allows them to appreciate the positive aspects of their jobs, boosts morale, and enhances workplace culture. These are all effective ways to reduce stress and burnout.
Is the purpose so simple and inspiring that every employee knows it by heart? Starbucks has a great purpose statement, “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.” Short, achievable, and inspirational.
Culture can be shaped through simple rules. At fassforward, we “fill buckets.” This is based on the philosophy of a children’s book. In short, we all walk around with invisible buckets; positive actions fill the bucket and negative actions empty it. Our goal is to fill buckets by encouraging a culture of empathy, compassion, and kindness both in our treatment of clients and our colleagues.
Remember, people are happier and will do more when they feel that they are contributing to a worthwhile purpose.
We are often so focused on what’s not working (too stressed, overloaded with work and responsibilities, too many zoom meetings), that we lose sight of what is.
Well-being is essential to fostering improved physical, mental, and emotional health. Daily activity, nourishing foods, and a sense of connection, both to yourself and to others, are critically important components of well-being and should be practiced consistently to realize the full spectrum of benefits.
When considering more comprehensive health and wellness promotion programs, keep a keen eye out to identify and subsequently mitigate common barriers; what’s preventing active participation?
The best way to get this information?
It might be tempting to throw a few programs together and then move on. But it is important to regularly review and solicit feedback so that efforts continue to meet and exceed the needs of the participants and of the company.
In a recent OpEd, Nike CEO John Donahoe demonstrated a great leadership moment by making himself vulnerable and opening up about his own mental health.
“I’ve embraced a lot of help. I’ve had the same therapist for the last 30 years. I have spiritual advisors and business mentors, who I call often for guidance. I can’t imagine being able to perform today without getting help.”⁹ Under his leadership, Nike has initiated several programs to address work-related burnout including access to wellness coaches, free wellness memberships, support for families (including paid parental & family leave, back-up care, childcare subsidies), and more.
It’s time for business leaders to take active steps to address this crisis. As our grandmother/grandmother-in-law Annie Doorish constantly reminded us: “your health is your wealth” (she recently passed at 101).
¹ “Mental Health, Resilient Workforce, Business Recovery Study.” MetLife, 2020.
² Lipman, Victor. “Workplace Trend: Stress Is On The Rise.” Forbes, 9 Jan. 2019.
³ Robinson, Bryan. “The 2019 Rise In Job Stress And Burnout.” Thrive Global, 23 Dec. 2020.
⁴ Segal, Edward. “Leaders And Employees Are Burning Out At Record Rates: New Survey.” Forbes, 17 Feb. 2021
⁵ Segal, Edward. “Leaders And Employees Are Burning Out At Record Rates: New Survey.” Forbes, 17 Feb. 2021
⁶ “Employers Eager for Return to Workplace, Survey Says Employees Disagree.” Limeade, 27 Apr. 2021. ⁷ Green, David. “Leena Nair on How HR Drives Business Value at Unilever.” 8 Oct. 2021. ⁸ Moody, Kathryn. “Verizon, Kellogg and Others Create Mental Health at Work Initiative.” HR Dive, 27 Apr. 2021. ⁹ Swaminathan, Aarthi. “Why Nike and Its CEO Are Focusing on Mental Health.” Yahoo Finance, 17 May 2021.