A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 1, 2021

Data Reveals Why America's Workforce Is Exhausted and Burned Out

Illness, childcare, elder care, job security, vaccination access - and a contentious presidential election: despite the success of the vaccination program, polls reveal the US workforce is far more stressed than it was before the pandemic. 

That schools are not yet back to regular schedules and that vaccination, especially for children, remains uncertain in the face of dangerous new Covid variants has contributed to evidence of burnout which may, ironically, lead to productivity declines as offices begin to reopen. As a result, many companies are continuing or expanding pandemic benefits. JL

Soo Youn reports in the Washington Post:

Polls have found workers’ life evaluations have declined during the pandemic and that 61% of women and 52% of men feel stressed, up from before the pandemic. Employers, from Fortune 500 companies to boutique firms and nonprofits, are continuing pandemic benefits such as paid time off, child- or elder-care benefits, flexible work schedules and remote work in recognition that a returning workforce is at high risk of burnout. “Employers understand the employees returning to the office are not the same people who left last March.”

Meg Trowbridge’s plans for the week are pretty simple. She’ll take long, meandering walks and explore some new parks and visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for the first time since 2019 — all on company time.

“I’m so excited to take a morning or afternoon walk when I’m not in the crowd of after-work people,” said Trowbridge, a copywriter for Mozilla, which produces the Firefox Web browser. “I’m definitely going to hit SF MOMA and just stroll and see how long I can just get lost in the museum again because it’s been so long, and I feel like just getting inspired.”

In pre-pandemic times, Trowbridge would have joined colleagues from around the world at Mozilla’s annual two-week off-site meeting — last held in Berlin in January 2020 — a mix of creative work and networking that left her both exhilarated and exhausted, she said.

Instead of shifting that program online for a week of Zooms, Mozilla is shutting down the entire company for a “Wellness Week,” which will lead into the Fourth of July weekend. It dovetails with another initiative the company formalized this past January, a “Wellness Day,” or companywide day off, once a month every month this year. All 12 are scheduled for Fridays to tack onto the weekend.

It’s not just Mozilla. Employers across the country, from Fortune 500 companies such as PepsiCo and Verizon to boutique advertising firms and nonprofit organizations, are continuing pandemic benefits such as increased paid time off and child- or elder-care benefits as well as embracing flexible work schedules and remote work in recognition that a returning workforce is at high risk of burnout.

Last week, Bumble, the company behind the dating app, took the week off. LinkedIn shut down for a week in April. Last summer, Canadian e-commerce company Shopify instituted “Rest & Refuel Fridays” globally and will do the same this year from July 2 through August.

Fidelity is granting U.S. full-time and part-time employees five additional paid “relief days” for unexpected events, as well as elder- and child-care coordinators to help find and vet caregivers or tutors. The fund manager also expanded a program to help parents of children with behavioral or developmental disabilities.

Marriott International is adding three paid “TakeCare Days Off” on the Fridays before Memorial Day, July Fourth and Labor Day for non-hotel staffers. The world’s largest hotel chain also “strongly encourages teams” to avoid all meetings on Fridays. If a critical meeting must take place, “we ask that it be concluded by no later than noon, local time,” Sarah Brown, Marriott’s director of corporate media relations wrote in an email.

Gallup polls have found that workers’ life evaluations have declined during the pandemic (regardless of remote/in-person work), and that 61 percent of women and 52 percent of men feel stressed on a typical day, both up from before the pandemic.

That presents a challenge to employers trying to get their workforce to return to offices in person and resume business as usual.

“Expecting people to just ‘return to work’ does not acknowledge the challenges and difficulties employees endured. Employers can’t expect employees to just pretend like we didn’t just live through a social catastrophe — especially as that catastrophe continues to unfold around the world,” Stanford University sociologist Marianne Cooper said. “Employers need to understand the employees returning to the office are not the same people who left last March.”

Any return to the workplace is also likely to affect people differently depending on vaccination status, Cooper said.

For parents who have younger children who are not eligible for vaccines yet, the return to in-person work remains a potentially high-risk activity. For offices that don’t mandate vaccinations, there are bound to be tensions between workers who wonder about their colleagues’ status and how comfortable they feel about sharing space. Others may be wary of divulging medical conditions that affect their vaccination status with their employers or colleagues.

While many companies have increased the number of days or reasons for employees to use paid time off (PTO), even unlimited vacation days don’t necessarily translate into a sense of relief. There’s the pileup of emails to get through before they can even start work upon their return. If you’re on vacation and the rest of your team isn’t, you may still need to monitor developments remotely, making full unplugging nearly impossible.

Hence, this growing trend of companywide shutdowns.

Before the pandemic, 40 percent of Mozilla’s workforce worked remotely, so the corporation thought it was in a decent position to weather the pending storm. It could just send the rest of the employees home and build out its existing infrastructure.

“But it didn’t stop us from suffering,” Mardi Douglass, senior director of culture and engagement, said recently. Kids and spouses were also grounded at home. “Going to the grocery store was a major ordeal. So all those things, despite that advantage, still really weighed on people.”

In addition, the company suffered a loss of advertising revenue and laid off about 300 employees, adding to workers’ anxiety. For the 700 remaining, it was taxing, Douglass said. She constantly hears, “ ‘Jesus, I’m exhausted.’ ‘Too many meetings.’ Leaders are coming up to me and saying, ‘Something’s gotta give here.’ ”

As a result, she’s trying to mitigate burnout as a systemwide issue. Because Mozilla is run by a not-for-profit foundation yet competes against the deeper pockets of Google and Facebook, as well as start-ups that dangle potential public offerings for employees, it has to use workplace culture to stand out — which has traditionally been a priority and a source of pride.

Before covid, employees had a “wellness stipend” to spend on gym memberships or other health initiatives. The funds were cut during the pandemic, which understandably upset people.

“Having a day off when the whole company’s also off is actually the thing that makes me feel relaxed. I don’t feel guilty. It’s not piling up. I don’t feel like I’ve been slacking on emails,” Douglass said, relaying a popular sentiment from a companywide survey taken after the September layoffs.

Similarly, other companies have found advantages for even smaller mandated breaks. Nasdaq-listed Versus Systems started companywide days off every other Friday in the spring of 2020.

“We’ve always had very flexible hours and encouraged vacations and time off for mental health because those things are important. But early in the pandemic, we realized people needed more — something structural that they didn’t have to ask for,” founder and chief executive Matthew Pierce said.

An unexpected benefit: better meeting attendance.

“People know they can schedule the million other things they have to do in real life for that other Friday. Our chief people officer, Amanda Armour, really championed the policy, and it’s been a huge success,” Pierce said, adding that it has helped with job satisfaction and overall health issues. “Telling external partners that it’s not just you taking off but the whole company has made it easier to implement, too.”

For some companies, remote work and flexible or customized work days are strategies to punch above their weight in accessing talent.

St. Louis-based digital advertising and marketing agency HLK initially offered remote work only to new hires, as part of a strategy to expand nationally. It employs 250 people — about half of whom joined since November 2020 — with 50 or 60 open roles, said Chief People Officer Marlena Edwards.

But the pandemic prompted the agency to offer similar flexibility to all of its employees.

“We went to a fully remote model” during lockdown, Edwards said. Going forward, they’re allowing all employees the choice to stay fully remote or to work out a schedule with their managers, “whether that meant they were in the office five days a week, or three days a week.”

“We would allow them that flexibility and autonomy to work with their managers to figure out what was the best schedule for them. From a talent perspective and a people perspective, that is ultimately what people want, to really have that flexibility of being able to get the job done, being able to deliver, but doing so based on their lifestyle. That is what we rolled out this year, and it has been wildly successful,” she said.

As of June 1, the office in St. Louis is open for vaccinated employees who wish to come in — and on these customized schedules.

“Whether it’s a 9-to-5 or 7-to-3 or noon-to-7, I think that allowing employees to plan their days around what’s happening in their personal lives does help with burnout because they can better manage their time instead of having it mandated,” she said.

In addition, the company offers unlimited wellness days off. For those who don’t fully use the benefit, she said, it’s up to leaders to proactively spot workers or teams who haven’t taken time off in a while and encourage them to do so.

“That’s how we’re going to eliminate burnout — by identifying people who haven’t really taken the time to recalibrate and focus on themselves,” she said.

These changes aren’t just taking place in smaller companies. On June 14, PepsiCo announced a similar flexible schedule.

“There will be no default day-to-day workplace for employees in headquarter locations — associates along with their managers choose what work can be done remotely and what needs to be done in their PepsiCo office. Decisions about the best ways of working will be based on roles, daily activities and team dynamics,” according to a company statement.

The company will move from average office attendance of 65 percent at assigned locations to 50 percent average attendance. This permanent shift comes on the heels of pandemic-specific benefits such as six free professional counseling sessions, a telemedicine option for behavioral health through 2021 at no cost to employees, and last-minute emergency child-care options.

Verizon is also integrating fully remote and hybrid options for some of its employees.

The company focused on pandemic burnout by addressing “the root of the challenge for many of our employees — child care and flexible work arrangements,” said Christy Pambianchi, chief human resources officer at Verizon.

“First, we introduced a covid-19-specific leave of absence policy called the Caregiver Leave program for employees unable to work as they care for loved ones,” Pambianchi said. “Second, we expanded our backup care program for employees balancing work with caregiving responsibilities by providing a reimbursement toward child or elder care and allowing employees to select their own provider.”

For some companies, even small tweaks in corporate culture can make a difference.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Smart Design, a strategic design firm based in New York City, tried to keep up a social atmosphere with weekly Zoom happy hours at 5 p.m. Then executives realized that people were still working or had been on video calls for eight hours straight and dreaded getting on yet another one. So the company shifted them to lunchtime.

“We’re rebranding them as midday mental breaks,” said Sarah Szeflinski, Smart Design’s people operations director. “The thinking was, give people this opportunity to say, ‘Okay, I need to walk away from whatever I’m doing, I need to socialize on something outside of my project. Maybe you went to the [office] kitchen to make a coffee and you have that chitchat, and you’re not getting that if you’re home alone.”

“It had a trickle-down effect. It kind of allowed us to say, ‘Look, it’s okay to take time to do nonwork stuff during work hours. It was in the middle of the day; the company is hosting this for you.”

She noted that has had a big impact on morale. Not just the breaks themselves, but also the modeling by leaders, with open calendars to show blocks of time spent not working in the middle of the day.

“For example, an executive design director blocks her calendar every day at 11 o’clock to go for a run outside. I am home with my little pandemic baby and my 4-year-old, and so I am blocking every day for family lunch to feed them and then put them down for naps. One of the managing partners blocks her calendar for a bike ride during the day,” Szeflinski said.

“Seeing that and normalizing that has really helped, too, because a company can say whatever it wants and put in some policies, but if you don’t actually feel like you’re allowed to use that time, then it’s not really going to do much — like presenting a meditation app. If nobody’s using it, or if you’re not encouraging it, it can feel like there’s an ulterior motive.”


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