Stress and burnout are at an all-time high. Everyone is finding it harder to switch off from work in the evenings and on the weekends – it turns out living in your workplace is not conducive for a good work-life balance.
In an interview with UNLEASH, Ariana Huffington, listed on TIME’s ‘100 Most Influential People’ list and Forbes’ ‘Most Powerful Women’ list, notes how the pandemic has created an opening for businesses to tackle burnout and stress.
Huffington, who is the founder and CEO of Thrive Global and The Huffington Post, stated: “We need to end the collective delusion that burnout is the price we pay for success.
“We have an opportunity now to use the COVID-19 pandemic to refine productivity and as a catalyst to change the way we work and live.”
COVID-19 and burnout
Research by Asana found that 71% of employees across the world experienced burnout at least once in the past year.
Asana’s 2021 Anatomy of Work Index, which surveyed 13,000 employees across the world, also found that the number of workers reporting their mental health as poor or very poor rose by 13% to 18% In 2020, while 42% rated their stress levels are high or very high.
Similarly, a December 2020 report by Spring Health found that 76% of US employees surveyed by The Harris Poll were experiencing burnout symptoms like exhaustion and feeling detached from work.
These figures were further confirmed by research by mental health tech company Ginger. Ginger surveyed 1,300 employees in the US and found that 70% reported feeling more stressed in the pandemic than ever before in their careers.
The primary cause of these soaring levels of burnout and stress, according to Asana, is being overworked (46%), not being able to switch or disconnect from work (32%), suggesting a lack of work life balance. Both Spring Health and Ginger found that COVID-19 itself was a significant stressor for workers in the US.
Impact of burnout on profits
Naturally, increased burnout and stress are having a knock-on effect on productivity at work, leading to worse performance, as well as more sick days, and, according to research by Gallup, employees being twice as likely to actively seek a new job.
All of this costs businesses money. 2020 research by Deloitte found that poor mental health pre-pandemic cost UK businesses £45bn every year. In fact, research by Westfield Health found that absenteeism alone cost the UK £14 billion in 2020.
According to the American Institute of Stress, it is estimated that stress costs US businesses up to $300 billion a year.
While Huffington discusses how employees themselves can tackle their own stress levels one micro-step at a time – I personally am planning to read before bed, instead of watching Netflix — what can employers do to support their employees in tackling wellbeing?
For every £1 spent on mental health interventions, businesses get £5 back in reduce absence, presenteeism, and staff turnover, according to Deloitte.
Although flexible working seems to be the most popular option in both Asana’s and Spring Health’s report, other solutions include investing in new tools and apps that help to tackle employee wellbeing, according to Spring Health.
Asana’s research focuses on the need to encourage people to take breaks and minimize working outside of contracted hours. Tech has a role to play here – but it remains crucial that the use of apps and platforms is optimized so as to not overwhelm staff and distract them from their work.
Let’s take a look at some examples of technologies that could help employers tackle staff burnout.
Identifying the causes of stress
It is impossible to mitigate stress if you do not know the main causes of it in the workplace. There are number of apps that act as mood trackers to allow workers to pinpoint exactly what is triggering sky-high stress levels, and therefore establish mechanisms, alongside their teams, to mitigate this.
One example is Wellspace, which is designed explicitly for businesses and encourages users to track their mood, sleep, and activity. The mood tracker aims to encourage users to record their moods and attribute triggers for those feelings. This means that staff can track patterns of stressors and therefore take proactive steps to improve their mental wellbeing.
On a similar vein, Spanish Koa Health has developed a wellbeing app called Koa Foundations for companies that aim to tackle employee stress and drive resilience head-on. It provides evidence-based tools, including cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and meditation, to identify everyday stress and find ways to mitigate it.
Another app that takes this one step further is Mood First AI, which uses emojis to bring emotions to the front and centre of meetings.
The app allows team members to share up to four emojis of how they are feeling each day – it can even be linked to a certain meeting. This means that businesses can check how their workforce is feeling day by day – and then ask those struggling what their employer could do to help.
Through the quick and continuous sharing of emotions and feelings, Mood First AI hopes that issues like racism or other forms of discrimination can be rooted out and dealt with much quicker, thereby creating more inclusive working cultures.
Enforcing breaks in the working day
UK research by Wildgoose suggests that COVID-19 lockdowns and remote working have caused a significant reduction in breaks; 95% of 133 UK companies’ employees said they had neglected so-called microbreaks when working from home.
The study also found that only 47.3% of those surveyed took a break every hour and 50.38% did some form of exercise away from their desk.
Not taking breaks is a sure-fire way to burn out at work. Spring Health recommends that companies need to promote healthy work habits, and that includes regular breaks and getting some fresh air.
In addition to managers leading by example and encouraging their staff to take regular breaks — and particularly to get away from their desks and go outside — there is a number of ways that tech can help nudge employees to take breaks.
For instance, meditation app Headspace provides short meditations and workouts that employees can take advantage of in their breaks. Its platform is leveraged by Adobe, Roche, and Publicis Groupe, among others.
Headspace also claims that meditation has other benefits for employee wellbeing and productivity. It believes that mindfulness increases focus, reduces stress, and boosts engagement with work.
Other apps that can be used include Break Time and Stand Up! which can be customized to your working schedule and remind individuals to move after a set time of sitting down — say two hours.
Implementing a work life balance
The lack of work life balance — which is not helped by the lockdown and social restrictions in place — is another major trigger for burnout.
Huffington noted in her UNLEASH interview that there is not only a need to start your day well — ie by not endlessly scrolling through social media as I do — but also to find a way to properly finish your working day.
One of the aims of Koa Foundations is to help employees switch off at the end of the day, according to a blog post.
The app encourages uses to take some deep breaths and end their day focusing on what went well, rather than agonise on what went badly. The concept is that by focusing on the good, staff do not start their evening worrying about their day.
MyMindPal encourages users to do the exact opposite. It gets individuals to write down a list of everything that annoyed them that day and then feel released from worrying about them.
Ultimately, one size does not fit all and there is no point in implementing technology if your staff does not actually use it to improve wellbeing. Employers must listen to the needs and opinions of their staff when considering how to use technology to tackle burnout and stress.