Half of employees expected to push through challenges ‘without complaint’, survey finds

Companies risk burnout and frustration among their workers as report warns traditional resilience ‘has its limits’

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More than half (53 per cent) of employees are expected to push through challenges without complaint, which leads to a higher likelihood of burnout, a report by the O.C. Tanner Institute has found.

The 2024 Global Culture Report found traditional definitions of resilience in the workplace are outdated for modern working environments “because it relies too heavily on the capacity of individuals and too little on the culture of organisations”.

“Simply demanding that employees endure travails ignores the issues behind changing roles, practices and job requirements. Consequently, resilience becomes whatever the employee can bear rather than proactive organisational preparation for change. Traditional resilience also has its limits,” it said.

The report said this meant that “practical empathy” was increasingly important to workers and workplaces and it was found on average that employees pictured themselves staying 2.5 years longer at their organisation when their leader was empathetic.

However, only 59 per cent of employees felt their leaders’ expressions of empathy were accompanied by meaningful action and support, and only 58 per cent of organisations take action to improve after receiving employee feedback.

Both leaders and employees said they had been “left frustrated” by empathy initiatives that were perceived as “warm and fuzzy” programmes with little usefulness, and nearly half (47 per cent) of employees reported a lack of follow through on company promises.

Mindi Cox, chief people and marketing officer at O.C. Tanner Institute, said that, despite this, “small shifts” in how firms approach workplace culture can have a big impact on employee satisfaction: “We have a variety of crucial issues to attend to, but we’re seeing conditions and calculations with promise – numbers that translate into confidence that small shifts in the way organisations manage change, build skills, act with empathy and develop resilience can create healthier workplace cultures.”

Organisations that create policies and programmes that enable the practice of empathy “remove the burden from leaders who feel conflicted between the business requirements of the organisation and the natural desire to help their people”, the O.C. Tanner Institute report said. Conversely, organisations that do not make it easier to practise empathy will contribute to leadership stress and burnout, it added.

Gary Beckstrand, vice president of the O.C. Tanner Institute, added that workplace cultures have “seismically shifted” over the past three years following the pandemic, “and there are no signs of letting up”, he said. 

“Organisations, especially those with large populations of frontline employees, need to work closely with their teams to create thriving workplace cultures – where all want to come, do their best work and stay in the face of ongoing change, and this research will help enable leaders to do so.”

But only 27 per cent of leaders feel strongly prepared to help their people navigate these changes, even though leaders who have the tools to help employees manage change decrease their risk of burnout by 73 per cent.

The report also found that some organisations were suspicious of workers who wanted to learn new skills, believing employees were “plotting to expand their employment options”.

Eight in 10 (83 per cent) workers said it was important for prospective organisations to offer skill-building opportunities, with the top reasons for this being to improve performance in a current job (54 per cent) and to achieve personal growth (53 per cent). 

Firms that do not provide any skill building have a 76 per cent lower chance of having a thriving workplace culture and a 72 per cent lower chance of employees saying they still want to work there in a year.

This highlights the importance of having a “people centric” approach to developing workplace culture, the report added. It said: “Many organisations have already adjusted their policies and philosophies around schedules, work locations, benefits and career development. Others, however, may feel weary, burned out or even paralysed after years of intense and rapid transformation. 

“The most important thing to remember is that proactive changes needn’t be dramatic to be effective. Seemingly minor shifts can lead to major success if organisations keep employees at the forefront of decision making. Our research shows a people-centred approach fosters cultures where employees feel fulfilled and ultimately drives better business outcomes.”