The Pandemic Has Left Us All Burned-Out — Here’s How Employers Can Help

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December 15, 2021


As we approach two years of coping with COVID-19, studies show that the pandemic has had a psychological as well as a physical impact. In short, most of us are simply burned-out.

The stress of dealing with the disease, as well as with the changes it’s brought to work arrangements and the way we live our lives, have taken a toll on many of us. One recent report found that 42 percent of US women and 35 percent of US men feel burned-out often or most of the time.

“There was an enormous amount of change that happened very, very quickly for people,” says Stephanie Pronk, senior vice president of Health Solutions at Aon. “And for those people who are resilient and can work through change really quickly, it was probably okay. But for a majority of people for whom change takes a little bit longer, I think it was pretty impactful — and not necessarily in a positive way.”

Burnout is just one component of a larger issue for many people, according to Pronk. A large number of people are failing to thrive — they’re questioning not just their purpose in their work, but in their broader lives. It’s the opposite of flourishing. It’s a sense of emptiness, of being stuck, of not making progress. They’re languishing.

The connection between this feeling of languishing and productivity and employee performance is a strong one. It’s also been a significant factor behind the “Great Resignation.”

But there are steps employers can take to help workers cope.

In Depth

While remote working has proved extremely successful for many businesses and their employees, it’s also left many workers feeling detached, unsettled and anxious.

“What we have to recognize is that work has come home in literal terms,” says Pronk. “There isn’t really a very good separation anymore for people and they’re struggling in terms of just being able to get through the day, whether it’s from a personal or a work standpoint.”

Employers’ Role

For businesses, the first step in helping employees overcome feelings of languishing is recognizing the issue. It’s also critical to understand that it’s a human phenomenon, potentially affecting everyone from front-line employees to the C-suite.

Next, employers should help employees to take the actions necessary to address the causes of their feelings of being stuck and failing to make progress. Employers should assist workers in making helpful changes, such as encouraging a change of scene by coming into the office periodically or working occasionally at the local coffee shop — if pandemic measures allow. They also need to remind employees of the importance of taking time off and provide workers the flexibility to do so as needed.

“If somebody needs a ‘brain-break day,’ let them take it,” says Pronk.

The pandemic has increased many businesses’ emphasis on employee mindfulness. That’s having a positive effect on helping workers overcome those feelings of languishing.

“That was something looked at as pretty soft and fluffy prior to the pandemic, but it’s really gotten a lot of attention and now it’s seen as a very important element for people in their work environment,” Pronk says.

Employers should also ensure that help such as group or individual counseling is readily available to employees. “Most of the time it’s just letting the person talk and helping them recognize they’re not alone,” says Pronk.

Recognizing the Problem

There are tools to help managers develop their ability to recognize employees who might be facing languishing issues.

Some businesses are looking to training programs to help leaders identify employees who might be struggling. It’s part of building a resilient workforce by recognizing the individual needs of different employees, then providing an array of wellbeing offerings that respond to those specific needs.

“There’s also a certification that people can get that’s called Mental Health First Aid,” says Pronk. “It’s to do exactly that. It’s like first aid and CPR at the work site. In this case, it’s intended to allow trained individuals to see warning signs and be able to have that conversation with people.”

Remote work does add to the challenge. It can be more difficult to recognize the warning signs of an employee experiencing feelings of languishing on video than in-person. “You can see warning signs much better when you’re face-to-face with someone,” Pronk says. “That’s been one of the challenges and that will continue to be a challenge.”
Such programs will become even more prominent at businesses in 2022, Pronk believes.

“Helping people before they get to the point where they might leave and go to another employer is important,” Pronk says. “Right now, employers want to keep their people, so I think that’s going to be an important people practice as we move forward.”

Investing in People

The pandemic has forced major changes for both businesses and their employees, many of which will continue going forward. Among the changes for business is a growing recognition of the importance of employees’ physical and mental wellbeing. That recognition will continue to grow.

“The pandemic has really highlighted how important humans are to businesses and that it’s not always about profits first,” says Pronk. “You might see more of a balance in a lot of organizations between people and profits, recognizing that if people are not healthy and well, that profits aren’t going to come along.”