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As organizations accelerated the transition to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic, employees fortunate enough to keep their jobs were left grappling with a new set of uncertainties — managing feelings of burnout, grief and isolation while scrambling to stay on top of their workload and maintain productivity.
Between Sept. 2020 and May 2021, Pathways at Work surveyed more than 2,200 individuals working across finance, advertising, marketing, information technology, accounting, facilities management and education to understand their top concerns. The results revealed an ongoing struggle with mental health.
For example, nine out of 10 employees expressed concerns about burnout, citing the challenges of simultaneously balancing their home and work life in addition to layoffs, economic downturn, reduced headcount, concerns about unemployment and workplace accommodations.
Today, nearly two years into the coronavirus pandemic, we aren’t entirely out of the woods. Instead, employees and business leaders are navigating yet another transition period — the return to the office. And while it may be tempting to assume most employees are eager to “get back to normal” after making many challenging adjustments, the reality is much more complex.
More than 30% of employees surveyed by Pathways at Work reported high levels of stress and anxiety, noting their symptoms had not resolved with businesses’ reopening efforts. This tells us that many working professionals are still reeling from the changes brought on by the pandemic, and failing to address this impact from an emotional, mental and behavioral health perspective could have a profoundly negative impact on return-to-work plans.
Making Employee Mental Health Part of the Plan
As human resources leaders and business managers collaborate to welcome employees back to the office, there will naturally be a focus on physical health and safety measures, from gathering feedback about vaccination status to addressing concerns about exposure and enforcing mask safety. However, it is critical to remember that wellness is multifaceted; understanding how stress, anxiety, fatigue and burnout present themselves within the workplace context is fundamental to maintaining a complete picture of employee health.
Once physical safety protocols are in place, equal priority must be given to understanding and supporting employee mental health throughout the return to the office and into the coming months. This should involve assessing employees’ mental health concerns before they return, planning for potential challenges throughout the transition, and proactively providing resources to address these and any new stressors that may arise down the road.
Burnout is what happens when an employee is overextended at work and ignores stress signals from their body and mind. Across industries, employees have reported unprecedented rates of burnout, a natural reaction to an "always-on" work culture combined with increased feelings of fear, uncertainty and lack of control caused by the pandemic.
Now, as they return to the office, Americans are at greater risk for burnout than ever before. While this poses obstacles for businesses in the form of reduced productivity and creativity that ultimately affect overall employee performance, it can also lead to increased absenteeism and higher healthcare expenses.
As far as professional stressors, employees’ industry and position, company culture and work hours all contribute to levels of burnout. While the specific causes can be different for any individual, some common factors include:
- Increased job demands
- Lack of support from colleagues and superiors
- Long hours and a constant connection to work
- Additional job responsibilities
- Less time spent with family and friends
- Feeling “used up” or experiencing emotional exhaustion
- Lack of autonomy and control over their work
- Constant changes in their work environment
If you have identified burnout as a top concern among your employees, act quickly to address it. Creative solutions may include expanding the amount of paid time off, decreasing virtual meetings, challenging the 40-hour workweek and providing ongoing access to mental health support. For example, many companies are exploring ways to work with behavioral health experts to conduct employee training sessions that tackle common mental health concerns.
Stress and Anxiety
While most people experience stress at some point in their careers, recent changes to how we work and live have significantly increased employee stress. The Pathways at Work survey revealed that nearly a third of employees are now very concerned about their stress levels, which could potentially manifest as poor sleep, absenteeism and decreased productivity, further heightening these issues in the workplace. In 2021, nearly 59% of workers surveyed said they were still concerned with fatigue and insomnia.
Unfortunately, inadequate coping mechanisms and unhealthy habits developed throughout the pandemic will not immediately disappear as COVID-19 infection rates decline. If anything, these lingering levels of stress, fatigue and anxiety stand to cause even further damage to employee productivity, engagement, morale and retention.
These numbers illustrate a vicious cycle, showing that stress remains high despite improvements in disease prevention and vaccination rates from last year. In addition, and perhaps more significantly, the numbers signal the potential for stress to trigger other mental health concerns that could impact job productivity — including burnout, anxiety, depression and conflict.
For example, more than 60% of all employees surveyed reported concerns over their productivity, managing conflicts and building trust at work in 2021. With layoffs, turnover and remote hires changing the work environment, three out of four employees mentioned they were having trouble reestablishing the trust and bonds they shared with their coworkers before the pandemic. As HR professionals understand all too well, work environments with unresolved conflict can become a breeding ground for turnover, significantly impacting an organization’s retention rates.
Because stress factors into so many other mental health concerns, a holistic approach to employee well-being is often most effective. The following are just a few examples of proactive steps organizations can take to mitigate the impact of stress:
- Assessing and expanding wellness programs to include activities proven to reduce stress levels, such as guided meditations, mindfulness breaks, physical exercise, or stress-management practices.
- Encouraging leaders to set the tone and share their own experiences with a lunch-and-learn series about navigating stress at work.
- Exploring early intervention with holistic mental health programs that can provide the resources employees need before they are struggling.
Embracing Change, Rebuilding with Purpose
Just as our lives dramatically changed in the past two years, so has the workplace, and employees are returning at a time when conversations about mental health are at an all-time high. They may be sitting at the same desks next to the same colleagues as they were before, but recent shifts in how they work have inevitably transformed how they think about well-being in the workplace too. This presents unique opportunities for companies to rebuild moving forward.
Improving employee stress management and emotional resilience starts with leadership initiatives and meaningful additions to employee benefits. Business leaders who have seen their employees struggle understand that improving company culture starts with well-being, and many are returning with new insights into how they can more effectively support their people and teams.
From those in human resources up to members of the C-suite, leaders and decision-makers realize they will be responsible for creating a post-pandemic work environment that addresses the events of the past two years by taking a stance on employee wellness that considers the long-term impacts of the pandemic.
Employees who felt burnt out and exhausted by the lack of work-life balance they experienced during the pandemic will likely return to the office with new priorities and needs, expecting more autonomy and flexible working hours in addition to more compassion built into the company’s culture. As a result, investments in workplace programs that help employees cope with stress, anxiety and burnout are rising across industries.
Organizations may find it overwhelming to address the mental health needs of their employees while also managing the logistics of being back in the office. After all, gathering insights about employee well-being and responding with the appropriate support is a big undertaking, and it will take experts years to understand the full scope of the pandemic’s impact on our collective mental health.
In the meantime, employers can focus on what we do know. While employees have improved their ability to manage negative emotions, most would still benefit from additional mental health support.
To ensure the success of your workplace transition, consider providers who offer comprehensive behavioral health programming that can support your returning employees’ emotional well-being by implementing programs with customizable, live and on-demand training workshops, resources and tools. This approach will lead to impressive returns — including reduced healthcare costs, absenteeism and improved productivity gains — while creating an environment where people feel safe, supported and able to thrive.
A productive and well-rounded workforce depends on leaders who can respond thoughtfully to the current state of employee mental health and tackle challenges head-on. Moving forward, doing nothing is no longer an option.
About the Author
Dustin Keller, Ph.D. is a licensed professional counselor and mental health service provider, and a national certified counselor who serves as vice president of clinical strategy for the Pathways at Work program.