The Great American Burnout is just getting started

Ariane Ollier-Malaterre answered my call from Canada. “Today is a holiday here,” she told me: Quebec’s National Holiday. She had a day off from teaching at the University of Quebec in Montreal’s School of Management.

Never mind that Ollier-Malaterre studies the future of work, with a particular focus on how people set boundaries between their personal and professional lives. She’s excited to share some of her research findings, and calling from home for 30 minutes seems easy enough.

This blurring of boundaries is a trap that Ollier-Malaterre knows others will fall into, too. She is especially worried now that many people are returning to the office after more than a year of working remotely. She goes on to envision a nightmare scenario in which employees go to the office, spend the day there, and then return home only to continue answering emails and calls.

“It would be the worst of both worlds,” for employers and employees, Ollier-Malaterre said. She and some of her colleagues call it a “wave of burnout” after the pandemic.

Preliminary data support Ollier-Malaterre’s hunch. In an Insider survey of 1,000 employed Americans across the country, 72% of respondents who are returning to the office after working remotely said they feel exhausted. This compares with 60% of those who have been to the office consistently and 65% of those who are working in a hybrid setting.

The World Health Organization defines burnout as “stress in the workplace that has not been successfully managed”. According to the WHO, its three components are burnout, cynicism, and decreased performance. Reports of burnout in industries such as finance, consulting and technology have been growing rapidly.

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As employers across the US begin to call people back to the office, we could see these symptoms pervade the American workforce. To put it bluntly: The Great American Burnout may have just begun. To control that trend, both employers and employees need to think about clearly defining what is working and what isn’t.

There is explicit and implicit pressure to return to the office

head photo of professor ariane ollier malaterre

Ariane Ollier-Malaterre is a professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal.

Management Academy

In many parts of the United States, life is returning to normal. Vaccinated family and friends are reunited; Offices are gradually reopening. But feeling liberated during this transition can go hand in hand with feelings of burnout. Nearly half of respondents to the Insider survey who said they felt a little burned out said they started feeling this way within the past few months.

Pressure back to the office can be a factor.

Sometimes that pressure is latent. Research shows that people who work remotely tend to have poorer career prospects than those who work in their offices.

And sometimes that pressure is obvious. WeWork CEO Sandeep Mathrani said people who prefer to work from home are generally the “least engaged” people at their companies. JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon said working from home is “not suitable for young people” or “people who want to hustle”.

But most experts say they want some degree of flexibility. Workplace technology company Envoy found that 48% of 1,000 American workers surveyed prefer a combination of remote and in-office work. In a Morning Consult survey, 39% of 1,000 adults in the US said they would consider quitting if their manager wouldn’t let them work from home at least sometimes.

The tension between what your employer wants – or requires – and what you know best suits your lifestyle can lead to stress, anxiety, and possibly burnout.

Employee values ​​and habits have changed during the pandemic

head shot of neeley tsedal, professor at Harvard Business School

Tsedal Neeley is the author of “The Remote Working Revolution”.

Harvard Business School

The pandemic has changed people’s habits, habits and even personalities. As Insider’s Rebecca Knight reported, some people have reconnected with their own values ​​and interests.

That means the work experience that pleased someone before the pandemic may not please them now. “People who leave to start working from home are not the ones who return to the office,” says Steve Cadigan, who runs the consulting firm Cadigan Talent Ventures and is the author of the forthcoming book “Workquake.” Maybe, Cadigan said, they lost someone to COVID-19; maybe they have young children and worry about their education; Maybe they simply discovered that they enjoy working remotely.

“People’s overall habits and habits have been completely altered” during the pandemic, said Tsedal Neeley, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of “The Remote Working Revolution.” . In Neeley’s research, one employee told her that going back to the office was “disruptive”. People are changing clothes, getting on with their stressful commute and starting back to work next to their deskmates. There’s some culture shock going on, Neeley said.

And after having so much autonomy over when, where, and how they work, many employees can find it difficult to return to their boss’s supervision. If you’ve been productive during the pandemic and have been empowered to manage your own schedule, “it can be frustrating to have your supervisor micromanage you again,” Ollier – Malaterre said.

How they handle this transition is up to the employer – whether they let it be a source of anxiety or take the opportunity to reassess how work is done.

Specifically, Ollier-Malaterre said, employers need to “inculcate the message that telecommuting is OK” and ensure employees’ workloads are manageable. “If they fall into this rigid view of work being 9 to 5 years old, plus the ability to be available 24/7 and never have the opportunity to leave a job without feeling guilty,” says Ollier-Malaterre. error,” said Ollier-Malaterre, “I fear we will see that wave of burnout. “

Employers should seize this opportunity to redesign jobs

Steve Cadigan's Headshot

Steve Cadigan runs Cadigan Talent Ventures.

Courtesy of Steve Cadigan

Cadigan says his clients always ask him what they should do about workplace flexibility. The job market is hot and they don’t want to lose their employees to competitors. And they don’t want to see their employees burn out. In addition to compassion, burnout employees are often less productive and less creative, which can hurt a business’ bottom line.

But Cadigan rarely tells anyone what to do. “The best way is to experiment,” he said. Employers should “intentionally ask employees about the work they are doing, especially about flexibility.

Regular surveys are helpful – provided employees fill them out and employers take their responses into account. Neeley says these surveys are the best way for employees to publicize their preferences. Overall, their voices can make a difference and influence management decisions.

Ollier-Malaterre says employers have about six months to reinvent the workplace in a way that empowers employees to do their best work. “Flexible Work Scholarships have been calling for that for 40 years now,” she said. Ollier-Malaterre says this moment could easily become a turning point in which employers increase autonomy and trust in their workforce. She’s not sure every employer will seize this opportunity. But about the future of work, she said, “I’m not pessimistic.”

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