Google search data reveals we may be in danger of a potential mass burnout of over-stressed, pandemic-battered workforces. There are things HR leaders can and should be doing that will head this off.

Online searches for topics such as ‘signs of burnout’ had already increased by 24 per cent throughout 2020 compared to the previous year. And winter in the northern hemisphere and its associated tendency towards lower mood and demotivation were impacted by lockdowns and anxieties over health. Disruption to Christmas plans, working schedules, and personal lives due to the lockdowns suggest the first few months of 2021 may see a further rise in mental exhaustion among employees.

Glint’s research shows we are in unprecedented employee burnout terrain. Aggregated data from 1.75 million employee engagement surveys carried out in 2020 shows that 5.41 per cent of employees provided free-text comments that suggest fatigue, feeling overwhelmed and other warning signals of potential burnout. By contrast, at the beginning of last year, that reading was just 4.08 per cent. The past two years have averaged 4.12 per cent, so this signifies a high 33 per cent rate rise.

Comments in the Glint surveys describe only a portion of the burnout experience at work; the full extent of the phenomenon is likely substantially greater. It’s understandable why people are feeling exhausted, ineffective, and disconnected from work: people have had to cope with countless worries and privations this past year, including health concerns, social isolation, enforced working from home, school disruptions and major layoffs, and in some countries political uncertainty. The combination of these issues has raised the spectre of employee burnout.

Glint data reveals that employees’ sense of belonging in the workplace has also been adversely affected – declining appreciably in recent months. Some 37 per cent of respondents are feeling less connected to their colleagues, and 31 per cent are feeling a lot less connected to their leaders. What’s notable is that companies with the least loss in a sense of connectedness show strikingly reduced rates of burnout than those where feelings of seclusion are more severe. Employees who say their employer is helping them feel connected are four times more likely to report feeling well supported.

It’s good to talk

So how can we help ameliorate these issues of mental exhaustion employees are currently experiencing? Our recommendation is to start by promoting one of the most effective yet straightforward of tactics to help your employees: conversation. Conversations after all prevent those initial feelings of pressure and anxiety from escalating into mental health issues. One-to-one conversations allow us to develop a shared understanding, encourage creativity, and help us to make decisions about what to do to address burnout problems.

No water cooler moments

As common as conversations are, it’s rare for them to be as thoughtful and consistent as they need to be to make sure we really communicate. And as we are all working remotely, making sure those conversations happen frequently means we have to be more deliberate about ensuring they take place. If we’re remote, you can’t say ‘Let’s grab a coffee’ to connect with a manager – and formally scheduling time for video meetings seems slightly artificial. Nonetheless, it’s vital that we have these conversations if we are to maintain a sensible work-life balance and healthy workplace relationships.

One key difference now compared to the pre-pandemic workplace is that people have very different circumstances to deal with and there’s a strong likelihood that employees’ attention will be focused on other parts of their lives. They may have health concerns and/or childcare challenges that make it hard to focus on work or balance competing priorities. So it’s important to check in on how people are doing, before moving to a discussion of work priorities.

It’s also important as leaders that we set the right tone for these discussions. The reality is that we are all struggling, and that needs to be acknowledged, especially by line managers. Leaders need to be open and transparent about their own challenges so that everyone feels comfortable about discussing their personal situation.

Well known global HR thought leader Josh Bersin has talked about this idea of a check-in not being about micromanaging your team, but about building relationships by being aware of what’s going on for the individual. With so many employees working remotely, Bersin notes that managers can check in simply by picking up the phone and calling someone or texting them and saying, ‘How’s it going?’

“These small interactions with people, listening to them, giving them just a note, ‘Hey, I’m here if you need any help’—those little things are basically what management is all about,” he reminds us.

We have observed organisations doing just that, with a heightened focus on finding out what their employees are thinking. For example, the Chief People Officer of international healthcare provider and multi-insurance group Bupa, Nigel Sullivan, has said that as a health and care company, it’s particularly important to find out if people felt supported. The firm recently ran a check on this across its entire team, and were pleased to receive scores in the high-80s and some in the 90s.

“We were very relieved and pleased because people were obviously feeling vulnerable at this time, and we wanted to make sure that people were safe,” he confirms. “That was one of the principles that we set out at the beginning of COVID—and, thankfully, we managed to stay true to that.”

Employees who have regular conversations with their managers say they’re better able to do their work and take care of themselves. In fact, our data shows that employees with a strong sense of connection are over six times more likely to be engaged, which has a helpful magnifying impact on business delivery.

You need to start those conversations today to help address the issue of burnout before it escalates and stops your brand making the most of the 2021 recovery.