Lessons from the first wave, the downside: Big burnout

As countries around the globe confront a second wave of the pandemic, employees are struggling to keep burnout at bay.

ARTICLE | 5m read
January 12, 2021

This prompted us at Fieldwork by Citrix to ask whether the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic contained any lessons, as leaders and employees prepare to face down yet another challenging chapter.

To identify them, Citrix partnered with VERJ, part of U.K. based LAB Group, to launch a survey of comparative linguistics research. We examined the language used in social feeds, looking at how mindsets and opinions have shifted since the onset of the pandemic. These anonymized observations, some of which are excerpted below, illustrate new ways that businesses have managed, both successfully and unsuccessfully, since lockdowns first took hold. Unsurprisingly, while some aspects of work life have improved, the pandemic has taken an exhaustive toll on the emotional health of employees.

In part two of “Lessons from the first wave,” we share four watchouts learned “the hard way” that leadership must bear in mind in the months ahead. By heeding them, leaders can help their organizations—and their employees—find the balance they need to thrive and succeed.

Mental health will be the biggest issue

According to social feeds, preserving mental health will be the biggest challenge as the world continues to combat the pandemic. This finding may seem obvious, but it highlights questions about how leaders manage and communicate with employees—or don’t—who may be overwhelmed by the current moment.

People were 14.9x more likely to use the words “really struggling” during the first lockdown. And on Mumsnet, an internet forum for parents in the U.K., people were 9.2x more likely to mention “mental health” after the pandemic began.

Most organizations have ensured that their workers are able to perform despite the circumstances. But have they been able to create truly healthy, sustainable working conditions?

14.9x

increase in use of the words “really struggling” during the first lockdown

Leaders will need to guard their employees’ time

Data from the VERJ team suggests that workers feel their time is under siege. Although some employees report fewer distractions at home, many face longer hours, days without breaks, and “Zoom fatigue.”

People were 4.8x more likely to talk about working “extra hours” in 2020 than 2019. And protecting time around meals was also a key theme, with people less likely to take a lunch break. People were 3.1x more likely to mention needing one in 2020 than in 2019.

Domestic circumstances have also made a huge difference in employees’ lack of time. Across both Mumsnet and Reddit, people were 7.1x more likely to reference feeling frustrated, annoyed, or struggling with regard to their children. And people managing families at home were 1.4x more likely to make references to time expectations.

Going forward, business leaders will need to recognize that work-life balance is precarious at best and implement policies and practices to improve it.

4.8x

increase in talk about working “extra hours” in 2020 vs 2019

IT must become an agent of digital wellness

The pandemic has severely tested companies’ digital capabilities. From difficulty accessing data to system shutdowns and hardware failures, there has been no shortage of headaches—both from the technician and user’s point of view.

Across social feeds, people were 5.7x more likely to mention “sandbox access” and “red tape” in 2020, compared to 2019. And people were 11.3x more likely to mention computer hardware in work-from-home conversations vs. workplace ones, and 37.3x more likely to mention “plugins” in 2020 than in 2019.

Reddit threads—in particular the WorkGroup thread—have featured people sharing their most useful tips for remote working, with recommendations for plugins to increase productivity. And tech-savvy employees who are not getting what they need from their tech are circumventing the system entirely.

Infrastructure that isn’t set up for flexible working models will only amplify the negative impacts to digital wellness. The more difficult technology is to access and use, the harder it will be for people to maintain healthy habits using it.

5.7x

increase in mentions of “sandbox access” and “red tape” in 2020 vs 2019

Organizational structures will be strained

In continued workforce planning, some management styles will thrive—while others will make work life more difficult. Some forms of management may not even be possible, let alone effective.

In 2020, “middle management” significantly over-indexed in Reddit work-from-home conversations. It was mentioned 16.5x more in Reddit’s WFH thread vs. the WorkGroup thread.

“Middle management has it worst,” one anonymous source said. “They work the longest hours, take all the blame for the mistakes of their employees, and also their superiors. They are let go for almost no reason, all the time. And they aren't paid nearly as much as the executives; more than—but more in line with—the rest of the workforce. That's a job I absolutely would not want.”

Another source put it more bluntly: “Middle managers effectively do nothing except keep the illusion that there is work to be done.”

Currently, there is a need for real team leadership as opposed to micro-management. Effective remote working will require high trust, valuing outcomes rather than being logged on and accessible 24/7.

MIDDLE MANAGEMENT HAS IT WORST. THEY WORK THE LONGEST HOURS, TAKE ALL THE BLAME FOR THE MISTAKES OF THEIR EMPLOYEES, AND ALSO THEIR SUPERIORS. THEY ARE LET GO FOR ALMOST NO REASON, ALL THE TIME. AND THEY AREN'T PAID NEARLY AS MUCH AS THE EXECUTIVES; MORE THAN—BUT MORE IN LINE WITH—THE REST OF THE WORKFORCE. THAT'S A JOB I ABSOLUTELY WOULD NOT WANT.

The road ahead

While there’s ample reason for hope, the coming months will be difficult for all, and business leaders are not exempt from the challenges. Rather, they will need to champion a culture that puts the well-being of employees first—understanding that people do their best work when they feel supported and heard by leadership. They must safeguard their employees’ time and enforce security policies that help—rather than hinder—productivity. And they must rethink entire styles of management, trusting employees to do what’s expected of them even when they can’t be seen.

A report from McKinsey suggested that businesses had undergone a decade’s worth of digital growth in 90 days. But businesses can take a more calculated, and less reactionary, stance today by applying a mindful, empathetic eye to how they and their people work.

The glass is also not half-empty. Learn four surprising upsides to lockdowns in this series’ first installment,  “Lessons from the first wave, the upside: Pandemic productivity.”

EVENT

Be Well Series: Wellness Technology

With more companies recognizing that everyone wins when employees are healthy, many are turning to technology to help their workforce stay physically fit and emotionally centered. Hear about the new digital tools that are helping people achieve wellness at work and the changes on the horizon for all organizations who prioritize wellness in the coming year.

Watch now

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