Burnout is continuing to rise; is HR doing enough?

Burnout keeps building for employees after a year of pandemic-related anxiety and isolation, heavier workloads and little to no time off.

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More than four in 10 employees (44%) say they are more burned out on the job today compared to a year ago, according to a new survey of 2,800 workers from global staffing firm Robert Half. That’s up from 34% in a similar 2020 poll. Nearly half of employees experiencing increased fatigue (49%) blame it on a heavier workload.

“After enduring more than a year of long hours and little time off, many workers are feeling burned out and need a break to relax and refresh,” says Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half. “Running on empty can have a negative effect on employees’ mental health and wellbeing, and managers should make it a priority to encourage their teams to enjoy a well-deserved vacation.”

Contributing to the issue is one in four workers say they forfeited paid time off in 2020. And more than a quarter (28%) of workers say when they do take time off, they check in with work frequently, Robert Half data finds.

The Robert Half data is the latest research to show increased rates of burnout. A December study of 1,136 employed U.S. adults from benefits provider Spring Health found that a staggering 76% of employees were experiencing worker burnout–which researchers say include such symptoms as exhaustion, feeling negative, cynical or detached from work, and reduced work performance. Data from Limeade found that employee burnout has soared as a result of COVID-19. When the software company surveyed employees just months before the pandemic began, it found that 42% of workers were burned out. When Limeade asked employees about burnout again, a few months into COVID-19, that number had shot up to 72%.

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And Total Brain’s Mental Health Index, which has been tracking employees’ mental state monthly since the start of the pandemic, has found employees are dealing with soaring rates of depression, anxiety and lack of focus.

Those dire statistics have pushed mental health to the forefront at organizations and served as a rallying cry for employers, with many adding programs and benefits to help. Some employers have encouraged employees to take their earned vacation time, with many others going further and adding extra mental health days, or even a week. LinkedIn gave its 15,900 full-time employees a paid week off in April to help them combat burnout and encourage them to unplug and recharge. Companies including SAP, Cisco, Google and Thomson Reuters also instituted companywide mental health days.

Many insiders say companywide mental health days are better for combating employee burnout than typical, individual vacation days. That’s because during a typical vacation day, “people may feel the need to check in or worry the assignments are piling up while they’re out,” says Dan Healey, head of HR at SAP, told HRE last month. “So, by announcing a global day off of work, we hope our employees may be relieved from any pressure to be online and truly take the time to get the well-earned rest they deserve.”

In addition to time off, though, many experts say much more work needs to be done–and needs to continue–as the mental health crisis becomes a workplace epidemic.

“I think it’s important to note that this is not an issue that will be solved with a single initiative,” Healey said. “To prioritize mental health means to support employees for the long-term and continue to adopt benefits and initiatives that reflect their needs.”

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.