Burnout: The Second Wave

Instead of settling into a new normal, more employees are reporting feelings of burnout now than in April. Are organizations doing enough to help them cope?

Get ready, a second wave is coming. Not of the coronavirus but of employee burnout—and potentially more serious psychological issues from anxiety and depression.

With the new school year underway, the virus still spreading, winter weather and flu season on the horizon, and employees still working in isolation from home, burnout rates are rising rapidly. According to one recent survey, nearly six in 10 employees reported feeling burned-out last month, compared to 45% in April. Moreover, as it becomes clear that the pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon, more employees are blaming the virus for their burnout, citing it as responsible for increased workloads, lack of support, and unclear performance expectations.

Experts say the increase in instances of burnout is troubling given that employees have had some time to adjust to the “new normal” of remote working and fear of layoffs. What’s more, organizations have ramped up wellness efforts over the last four months. Now, however, the concern for organizations is employees sliding from burnout into anxiety, depression, or worse. “Organizations are looking hard at the impact that diminished informal interaction and personal support is having on employees,” says Mark Royal, a Korn Ferry senior director focused on employee engagement.

What they are finding is that Zoom check-ins and basic wellness activities like offering yoga classes, mindfulness training, and gym classes aren’t enough. In fact, instead of relieving stress, reports indicate that work-sponsored social activities over Zoom could actually be causing more stress. George Atkinson, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Human Resources Center of Expertise, says right now wellness isn’t about programs or activities. Rather, he says, it is about “creating intimacy with employees to cut through the surface.”

“People need to vent, but they aren’t comfortable talking about these kinds of issues with managers or coworkers,” says Atkinson. That puts the onus on managers and leaders to proactively engage with employees, something they aren’t necessarily comfortable with, given that they are legally bound by what they can and can’t ask about home, kids, and health.

But it isn’t just the work-life imbalance created by the pandemic that is leading to burnout. It’s also ongoing racial unrest, wildfires, and the upcoming election, among other factors, that together with the pandemic are creating a general feeling of hopelessness and lack of control, experts say. To be sure, part of the problem is that people haven’t had time to take a breath because they are being hit with one metaphorical body blow after another.

Royal says that organizations need to make sure employees know that help is available to them as part of their medical coverage. Korn Ferry data shows that 20% of employees don’t understand what benefits are available to them through their health insurance. “Organizations need to proactively connect employees in need of help with available resources,” says Royal, pointing to benefits like psychological counseling, telehealth programs, employee resource groups, and company-supported childcare.

The most important thing leaders can do, experts say, is to make sure employees know they are not alone in how they feel, nor should they feel guilty about it. In response, leaders can help by sharing their own feelings about what they are dealing with. Another way is by creating new experiences or finding something new to do with people you know. “Humanizing the relationship can help employees cope,” says Atkinson.