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Pandemic Pressures Make Employee Burnout, Mental Health a Priority

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Employers are increasingly prioritizing employee burnout and their mental health as the COVID-19 pandemic trudges toward the 2-year mark.

“This is a historic time; we’ve never been through anything like this. Our mental health and our physical health are really being taxed,” Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Center for Workplace Mental Health, told ABC News this summer. “If there was ever a time to raise these issues, it’s now. If you’re experiencing burnout and you’re trying to ignore it, that will eventually catch up with you.”

CNBC reported in September that “how to deal with burnout – and prevent future burnout – is a challenge all businesses are now tasked with as many workers hit 19 months of working from home.”

Employee burnout and mental health issues were being addressed by the business world prior to the pandemic with the World Health Organization (WHO) adding burnout as an occupational phenomenon in 2019.

What is Employee Burnout?

Employee burnout is not classified as a medical condition by WHO but was included as an occupational phenomenon to its 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases.

The WHO defines employee burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Employee burnout is characterized by three dimensions, according to the WHO:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feeling of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

How COVID-19 Crisis Exacerbated Employee Burnout

Companies have no choice but to address employee burnout and mental health considering the COVID-19 pandemic and the pressures it has added to every facet of life, including the workplace.

“Work burnout is real, and during COVID, it only got worse,” reports CNBC.

Job search company Indeed released a study of 1,500 U.S. workers one year into the pandemic and found that employee burnout was not getting better, but was getting worse:

  • 52 percent of respondents said they felt burned out, up from 43 percent pre-COVID
  • 67 percent of those feeling burned out said the feeling had worsened over the course of the pandemic
  • Those working virtually (38 percent) felt the burnout had worsened vs. those working in-site (28 percent)
  • Millennials were the most burned-out group at 59 percent, up from 53 percent pre-COVID
  • Gen Z was just behind Millennials with 58 percent reporting burn out, up from 47 percent pre-COVID

“27 percent of all respondents are unable to unplug from work, whether due to an inability to take time off or a lack of clear boundaries between the workplace and home,” said the report authors. “Various stress factors also contribute to feelings of burnout during the pandemic, from finances, with 33 percent worried about paying monthly bills, to health concerns, cited by 25 percent.”

McKinsey & Company published a survey in April that also found almost half of the employees feeling burned out with 49 percent worldwide saying they were somewhat burned out. In the U.S. that number jumped to 56 percent somewhat burned out.

The Indeed and McKinsey surveys are backed by scholarly publications on employee burnout in 2021 including “How to Prevent and Combat Employee Burnout and Create Healthier Workplaces During Crises and Beyond” from George Washington University’s School of Business Department of Management.

“Employee burnout is pervasive, pernicious, and costly to human life, [businesses] bottom lines, and society – particularly during a crisis like the one caused by the COVID-19 pandemic but also during a broader set of pan-global crises yet to come,” wrote the paper’s authors Kelly P. Gabriel and Herman Aguinis.

How Companies are Responding to Employee Burnout

One expert told ABC News that “many solutions to burnout touted by the selfcare industry and beyond deal more with coping rather than prevention, and sustainable solutions would require overhauls that tend to be very job-specific but address the root causes of what makes a workplace stressful and exhausting.”

General ways that companies can respond to employee burnout include:

  • Manager and leaders can model good workplace behavior
  • Effective and open communication between, not only HR departments and employees, but between managers and staff
  • Setting healthy work/life boundaries, especially for those remote workers
  • Emphasizing exercise, sleep, and other stress-reducing activities to employees

Human Resource Executive polled HR leads and found these strategies can help alleviate employee burnout:

  • Encourage workers to take time off
  • Be cognizant of Zoom and on-camera overload
  • Survey employees
  • Make sure you are offering the right benefits and resources

According to the article: “Mental health benefits and programs, as well as benefits that take direct aim at common pain points that affect employees’ mental health—like caregiving support, financial wellness programs and more—can be beneficial, experts say.”

Employee Benefits to Combat Burnout

Expanded employee benefits including mental health coverage and resources can play a vital role in combating workplace burnout.

Forbes reported that a recent Visier survey found that “more than two-thirds (70 percent) of employees said they would leave their current job for a different one that offered comprehensive resources, benefits, support or policies intended to reduce burnout.”

The Visier survey found the benefits that would most help employees alleviate burnout if provided by employers were:

  • Flexible work hours for all employees (39 percent)
  • Mental health resources/support (31 percent)
  • Paid sick days (25 percent)
  • Wellness program (24 percent)
  • 4-day work week (24 percent)
  • Gym/fitness membership or discount (22 percent)
  • Work from home options (21 percent)
  • Employee care and appreciation gifts/programs (21 percent)
  • Unlimited paid time off policy (20 percent)
  • Flexible work hours for parents/guardians (20 percent)

“Our data indicates almost all employees struggle with burnout from time to time, so it’s crucial to have the right policies, processes, and technologies in place to support them,” the survey authors said.

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