Decoding Burnout and Job Performance During Covid-19.

Dr John Chan brings over 20 years experience specialising in talent and organisational development. John holds both a Bachelors and Masters in Organisational Psychology as well as a PHD in Industrial and Organisational Psychology. Dr John Chan is a Fellow at Sydney University and has spent a career researching and sharing insights with organisations to design and implement world class talent strategies. Peoplecorp had the pleasure of meeting John in 2017, later placing him with QBE as Group Head of People Data & Analytics.

During 2020 we’ve seen much written about COVID19 and its relative impact on organisations and in particular ‘people’. John Chan recently presented an in-depth piece of research exploring a specific risk area, ‘Burnout’. The study is fascinating and we’re delighted John has agreed to us sharing a summary of his research with our readers. We hope to get Dr Chan to present his findings at one of our events in the New Year.

While productivity has remained high during Covid-19, the risk of individuals developing burnout may also be increasing. Burnout has been a growing issue and we know little about the prevalence and impact of it as this global pandemic continues.

2020 has not been easy. I know that is probably the understatement of the year. Covid-19 has brought a peak level of uncertainty and volatility into our personal and professional lives. While juggling changes and disruptions at home and work, we are still under pressure to be at our most productive during this pandemic.

Above all, Covid-19 is a health crisis that brings potentially lethal consequences. However, the mental health implications such as stress, fear, and exhaustion, can be equally devastating. In June, the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported elevated levels of adverse mental health conditions, substance use, and suicidal ideation among adults in the United States. The prevalence of symptoms of anxiety disorder was approximately three times those reported in the second quarter of 2019 (25.5% versus 8.1%); and the prevalence of depressive disorder was approximately four times that reported in the second quarter of 2019 (24.3% versus 6.5%). A pulse survey conducted during Covid-19 found that rising stress levels were the greatest concern for employees, with women and those in the 35-44 age group reporting the highest levels of stress.

Given all the uncertainty around us, feeling exhausted and stressed is perfectly normal. However, as these feelings are prolonged, heightened levels of stress can lead some to develop burnout. A more complex and multifaceted mental health problem, burnout was already a growing issue even before Covid-19. In a survey conducted by Deloitte in 2019, 77% of professionals had experienced burnout at their current job. The same study found the rate of burnout was even worse for millennials with 84% saying they had experienced burnout in their current job; and nearly half having left a job specifically due to burnout.

Interestingly, while we are dealing with the pandemic, we are still being extremely productive. In a recent analysis of aggregated meeting and email meta-data, researchers from Harvard Business School and New York University found that there has been an increase in the number of meetings that people attended (+12.9%) and in the length of the average workday (+8.2%, or +48.5 minutes). In another report, the US Bureau of Labour showed that productivity increased by 7.3% in the second quarter of 2020.

Despite this drive towards productivity in the context of a global pandemic, leaders need to consider the sustainability of such levels of productivity and whether or not they put employees’ wellness at risk. The data also prompts the question of how we measure productivity. Is productivity best measured in terms of being busy, or do alternative metrics such as the quality of work being produced tell us more about it? Against the backdrop of fears about mass layoffs and limited employment mobility – are employees keeping busy and keeping others busy as a way of sustaining their own employment? And will employees be able to generate the high-quality innovative work that organisations need to thrive, while balancing everything else that they have to deal with in a global pandemic?

What actions should we be taking?

The health and economic uncertainty caused by Covid-19 has created a perfect storm of extreme prolonged stressors. In this environment, burnout can quickly spread within an organisation and create a health crisis. Many leaders and organisations acknowledge the risk of stress and burnout during Covid-19 and have taken action through wellness and employee assistance programs. While these actions may have managed the initial wave, we need more data to guide leaders on developing long-term strategic plans to combat burnout within their organisations – in particular organisations should be looking to gather data on:

  • Measuring the prevalence / levels of employees’ stress – this can often be done as part of your listening strategy or use data points such as absenteeism.
  • Analysing whether or not certain populations experience higher rates of burnout (e.g. those with caring responsibilities, gender, age groups, job function) and developing targeted wellness strategies for specific populations.
  • Redesigning different ways / data to understand productivity in the Covid-19 environment in terms of performance and quality of work.