Burnout is back in a big way

If the first reason for burnout being back big time is the old problem of bad management and toxic workplaces, the second is a more recent phenomenon, namely the havoc wrought by long COVID. That’s outside of the control of both employee and employer and has been devastating to mental and physical health at home and at work. According to Brookings Institution, 16 million working-age Americans alone have long COVID.

Around the world, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that a third of workers experience strain at work. In the UK, 30 million working days were lost from 2021 to 2022, with nearly 1 million of these due to work-related stress, depression and anxiety. The World Health Organisation reported a 25 per cent increase in stress and anxiety worldwide since the pandemic.

This brings into sharp focus how out of step modern workplace well-being has become with the post-COVID-19 experience. Despite the huge scale and scope of the corporate wellness market, which is set to double from more than $US50 billion ($77 billion) to $US100 billion by 2032, many of us associate it with soft stuff from an emphasis on mindfulness to the idea that this is about selling offices as nice places to work rather than helping people do their best work.

It’s a far cry from the original, deeper psychological emphasis of the worker assistance programs of the 1940s onwards. Popular consciousness doesn’t equate wellbeing at work with Centres for Disease Control or “adverse childhood experiences” but they should.

There are always bright spots, good initiatives and positive action being taken around well-being.


Syreeta Brown, chief people officer for British bank Virgin Money, said: “It’s not that there is more stress per se since COVID, but the nature has changed. All jobs are ‘always on’ now, and there is an expectation that your diary can be filled up by others if they can find a gap. Stepping away from your laptop can feel mutinous.”

Brown cites their program “A Life More Virgin”, which she says is “location-agnostic, totally flexible on office/home working, and encourages people to work the hours that suit them for the role and meets our customer and operational needs”.

Virgin Money, like many companies, also gives employees “wellbeing days” in addition to their holidays, but I’m struck, above all, by the commitment to reframing what workers need rather than the old, rigid model of what a manager might want them to need.

It’s time to locate work and working within a bigger framework. Let’s remember that the original WHO definition of health includes “social well-being.”

This means one thing above all: it’s time to take care of each other and ourselves in new ways for new times.


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