Article by Professor Wioletta Nawrot, ESCP Business School.
Employers frequently agree that more needs to be done to address employee mental health. Some even engage in wellbeing campaigns to attract young talent.
As an example, Citigroup has just opened a new two-year hub for junior investment bankers on a sunny, relaxing Spanish coast, in Malaga, promising eight-hour days and work-free weekend in response to criticism of burnout in banking. The bank insists that offering a better work-life balance will pay off with happier and more productive employees.
After the first national lockdown in the UK, a survey I conducted on 140 office workers from various industries and national backgrounds showed that despite having to deal with additional demands, such as home-schooling children, 34% of respondents worked longer hours than before the pandemic.
Some respondents focused on the advantages of remote work, including no daily commute and lower levels of stress, tiredness, and distraction when working from home. These upsides could compensate the disturbed for some employees work-life balance. Several studies show that, on average, office employees went through an effective transition to remote work and their productivity was not negatively affected in the short-run.
In many cases, support from managers mitigated the difficulties faced by employees during the pandemic. Clearly set tasks and deadlines, regularly catching-up and discussing work with their line manager were frequently mentioned as enhancing productivity by respondents in my survey.
Unfortunately, Covid-19 didn’t settle after the first national lockdown and many employees and managers continued working more and under pressure, without any respite. Many observed their physical and mental health beginning to deteriorate.
Both employees and managers worked longer hours and were exposed to excessive stress during the pandemic. However, due to their role and more responsibilities, managers were more likely to work longer hours and with greater intensity.
According to OECD, in Canada 35% of new teleworkers reported working longer hours, compared with 51% of managers. It is not surprising then that on average more physical and mental health problems have been observed in managers than in other employees.
A recent report from McKinsey reveals that, depending on the country, between 19-38% of employees display symptoms of burnout. In contrast, according to non-profit healthcare provider, Benenden Health more than 60% of UK managers experienced burnout at work because of the Covid-19, with 20% of managers considering quitting their job as result. For 68% of employees and 81% of managers, improving their well-being is now more important than advancing their careers, a survey from Deloitte shows.
The average employee received a lot of support from their managers at the onset of Covid-19, but many are now actively looking for less stressful jobs in a desperate attempt to protect their health. Yet, the more employees resign, the more work needs to be redistributed among those that remain, until new employees can be effectively introduced to their roles. On top of that, businesses have not ceased their efforts to adapt to the challenges of the post-Covid19 era, some brought about by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the current energy crisis, high inflation, and financial strain. Presumably, this means a greater, not lighter, workload for the average office worker in the short to medium term, with additional risks to employee’s wellbeing.
On the other end of things, the average manager, who took more responsibility to deal with the pressures of the Covid-19 crisis and support their teams during hard times, is feeling nothing less than exhausted. Many managers have been considering a shift in their priorities and some go one step further, taking a break to re-think their careers. This is not good news for employers and employees, adding another risk to productivity.
Furthermore, the availability and the quality of health-care provision to treat the physical and mental health impact of the pandemic on workforces is under an increasing strain. Policymakers have also been affected by the virus and some of them will possibly need to step away from work. It grows increasingly hard to see how work productivity could realistically remain unaffected during the years to come.
According to the World Health Organisation, depression and anxiety within the workforce costs the global economy US$ 1 trillion per year in lost productivity. And this estimate only reflects cases in medical care. Factoring in workforce burnout cases will produce a significantly higher figure.
International organisations, including the WHO and the International Labour Organisation, as well as governments, employers, and consulting companies, all need to take urgent action if the risks are to be effectively addressed.
A greater level of attention and resources need to be directed towards preventing and minimising the harmful effects of burnout. It is also necessary to recognise that workforce burnout has already reached a highly alarming level. Businesses and national economies cannot be left exposed to another significant risk without careful consideration.
Given that a relatively high proportion of employees and managers are now prioritising their wellbeing, even at the cost of slower advancement of their careers, it will be very interesting to observe the outcome of Citigroup’s experiment. If it proves to be successful, employers can assume that investing effectively in employee and managers wellbeing will become one of the determinants of their competitiveness. International organisations, national governments and local authorities must join the cause with programmes aimed at improving awareness and supporting burnout prevention. Most importantly though, a significant improvement in the provision of medical treatment of workplace burnout needs to take place.
About the author
Dr Wioletta Nawrot is Lecturer in Economics at ESCP Business School, on the London Campus.