UK businesses have yet to hit the heights of employee fatigue

Brian Kropp explores the results of recent research into the pandemic’s impact on employees’ mental health and wellbeing

One of the major consequences of the pandemic and shift to remote working has been the impact on employee mental health and wellbeing. At Gartner, our research has revealed that UK employees have been 62 per cent more likely to see an increase in their day and that 42 per cent feel emotionally drained from their work.

With lockdown restrictions gradually lifting over recent months, you might expect that employee fatigue would be starting to subside. However, we’re continuing to see upward trends. In this article, we look at what is causing this continued rise and how businesses can ensure it isn’t a problem that outlasts the pandemic. 

Remote challenges

Employees suffered unprecedented levels of change fatigue from adapting to working remotely and learning new skills at the start of the Covid crisis. This was exacerbated by a year working in conditions unsuitable for the remote world. 

Businesses instinctively applied office-based policies to the remote world to try to sustain operations during the pandemic. This included maintaining nine-to-five working hours and encouraging virtual meetings to make up for the lack of in-person interaction in a physical workspace. 

These processes didn’t account for the challenges of remote working and therefore contributed to the widespread fatigue. Virtual meetings, for example, are much more cognitively demanding than in-person interactions and have been combined with increased instant messaging. The result has been ‘always-on’ mentalities and employees feeling emotionally drained.

With offices currently reopening across the country, employees are still struggling to recover from the burnout suffered because of the events of the past year. 

The hybrid era

The shift to hybrid work has been another inflection point that has driven a new spike in employee fatigue over recent months. Employees are trying to get accustomed to being back in an office and adapting to new working structures. Meanwhile, our research has found 29 per cent have a lower level of change receptivity than before the pandemic. 

The nature of hybrid working itself could also be problematic. Employees will need to go to lengths to collaborate with colleagues working both remotely and on-site; meanwhile juggling home and work life could be challenging without clear rules on what days employees are required to be in the office. 

Businesses and HR teams must lead in the creation of a hybrid workplace model that champions flexibility, creates certainty, reduces digital distraction, and addresses the always-on mindset. 

Outdated workplace ideologies

As employees return to offices in larger numbers, outdated workplace philosophies are likely to increase employee fatigue even further. This includes the ideas that employees who work the longest hours are the most productive, and that those that are most visible are working the hardest. 

Our research during the pandemic has shown these workplace notions to be false. 43 per cent of workers report that flexibility in working hours helps them achieve greater productivity, while employees say they are productive 75 per cent of the time working at home, compared to only 62 per cent of the time at the office.

HR teams need to nurture shifts in business mentality whereby the minds of employees are thought of as important commodities to be carefully managed. They need to highlight the negative impact of burnout on business prosperity and champion initiatives to improve performance through positive mental wellbeing. 

We have seen many businesses starting to experiment in this area – some have offered meeting-free Fridays to employees, others have offered days off to prioritise mental health, and one company, the dating app Bumble, has gone as far as giving all employees a week of paid leave. 

A preventative approach: 

When asked about worries with regards to the hybrid workplace, 96 per cent of HR leaders report they are concerned when it comes to employee wellbeing and 93% more specifically to employee burnout. It is critical that businesses solve the problem of fatigue as we enter the era of hybrid work. 

Bumble’s paid leave approach was effective in helping employees to recover from the pandemic but moving forward organisations need to prioritise preventative strategies. This includes creating a flexible hybrid work policy, helping employees to work within its parameters, and focusing on improving the life experiences of staff. 

On the back of the pandemic, organisations have a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to redesign workplace structures, and they would do well to put employee wellbeing at the heart of it. 

Brian Kropp is chief of HR research at Gartner