Employees and Companies Are Facing a Burnout Crisis

By 

Michelle Delgado

 & 

Dr. Francesca Ortegren

Updated 

March 15th, 2021

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A year into the pandemic, workers are feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. For 41% of people, these feelings amount to burnout, a syndrome caused by chronic workplace stress.

Troublingly, companies may underestimate the presence of burnout:

87% of employees say their job impacts their mental health, yet only 17% of workers feel their organizations make mental health a priority.

Despite desperately needing time to recharge, we found that workers are reluctant to use their allotted time off. In fact, just 14% of workers took all of their vacation days in 2020, despite the fact 28% can’t roll unused days into the new year.

As workers adjust to remote work during the pandemic, 40% of employees surveyed agree that working remotely supports better work-life balance.

But with 63% struggling to maintain boundaries between work and home life, companies have a long way to go.

Key Insights

With 41% of Employees Feeling Burnt Out, Companies Risk Crumbling Productivity

At companies across America, employees are struggling. Among those we surveyed, more than two in five (41%) say they’re currently experiencing burnout.

We also found that 37% of employees are experiencing work-related stress that’s so intense, it frequently impacts their non-work life.

Although it’s normal for employees to feel tired or stressed from time to time, burnout goes much deeper. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), people experiencing burnout feel depleted, exhausted, and even cynical about their work.[1]

The consequences can be devastating. Burnt-out employees are 13% less confident in their performance and 23% more likely to visit the emergency room, according to studies by Gallup.[2]

It’s not surprising that burnout slashes productivity. In fact, general job stress costs U.S. companies an estimated $300 billion annually[3] — more than the GDP of Finland.[4]

However, there’s a silver lining for companies: Addressing common mental health concerns pays off big. The WHO estimates that every $1 companies invest in mental health treatment yields a $4 return in improved health and productivity.[5]

Remote Work Supports Work-Life Balance, yet 63% of Employees Struggle to Maintain Boundaries

Companies that support healthy work-life balance are better positioned to keep widespread burnout at bay.

Overall, we found that 40% of employees say working from home allows for a more ideal work-life balance — particularly among remote workers, who are 27% more likely than in-office workers to agree.

Compared to in-office workers, remote workers are more likely to report improvements in:

  • Work-life balance (27%)
  • Work stress (23%)
  • Overall job satisfaction (19%)
  • Overall happiness (13%)
  • Mental health (11%)
  • Work performance (11%)
  • Relationship with boss and/or management (10%)

Encouragingly, 62% of employees say their work-life balance is better than it was in 2019. This is likely due to the pandemic changing expectations around remote work — among people who can complete their job responsibilities at home, 71% are working from home all or most of the time.[6]

But these shifts may be temporary. We found that just 29% of employees will remain remote workers after the U.S. gets the pandemic under control.

Either way, remote work also comes with several key downsides that can contribute to employees’ ongoing struggle with burnout.

Among remote workers we surveyed, 63% find it difficult to shut down after work, potentially undermining the restorative potential of evenings, weekends, and vacation time.

Remote workers also tend to work long hours, with 42% starting the work day early and ending the work day late. 

Nearly one-third of remote workers (28%) also devote holidays, weekends, or other non-work days to completing work tasks. 

Employees Value Mental Health Days but Leave an Average of Seven Days of Vacation Unused

For the past year, the pandemic has had a disruptive impact on travel plans — potentially impacting how and whether workers use their paid time off (PTO).

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 92% of large companies (500+ employees) and 70% of small companies (1-49 employees) offer PTO.[7]

Yet our survey revealed a gap between workers’ need for time to recharge and the reality of how much time off they actually take.

Only 14% of the employees we surveyed successfully used all of their allotted PTO in 2020. At the end of the year, the average worker still had seven unused vacation days, or nearly 1.5 weeks away from the office they didn't use.

In fact, only 35% of workers attempted to use all of their annual vacation days in 2020 — even though 28% could not roll unused days into the next year.

60% of the employees we surveyed agree it’s important to use PTO for mental health days. But with nowhere to go, the pandemic may disincentivize workers from taking PTO, which can lead to poor mental health outcomes and contribute to burnout.

Why is it so hard for employees to take time away from work? Research by the American Psychological Association suggests company culture may be to blame. Only 41% of employees say their organization’s culture encourages employees to take time off.[8]

Leading concerns that cause people to avoid taking time off include:

  • A heavy workload (32%)
  • Fear of missing important information or opportunities (26%)
  • Feelings of guilt (23%)
  • Concerns about their perceived commitment to work (19%)

Even if workers intend to take care of their mental health and have the capacity to take PTO, company culture can prevent them from doing so.

Though both in-office and remote workers struggle to take advantage of their PTO benefits, remote workers may have better access to a wider array of coping mechanisms. We found that remote workers are:

  • 35% more likely to report journaling
  • 17% more likely to unplug from electronic devices
  • 11% more likely to practice meditation at least once per week

But not all coping mechanisms are healthy. Remote workers are also 37% more likely to report using recreational drugs at least once per week than their in-office peers.

Takeaways

Stretched thin by the demands of their jobs and the reality of the pandemic, more than two out of every five workers are struggling with burnout. Left unchecked, this burnout can cause productivity to plummet and workers’ health to decline.

Research-backed solutions such as adequate PTO and the option of remote work can help companies set workers up for success. But these measures alone aren’t enough to curb burnout — and unfortunately, the majority of employees doubt their companies’ commitment to prioritizing mental health.

Without a supportive company culture, burnt-out employees are unlikely to enact the work-life balance they need. Companies that ignore this problem can face costly losses, disruptive turnover, and an ailing workforce that struggles to remain productive.

Methodology

We surveyed 1,000 Americans who reported either currently working from home for a company that has office space (N = 607) or working in an office (N = 397) most of the time.

Respondents answered up to 20 questions on December 11, 2020, about their experience during the pandemic as part of a larger Remote and Office Work Survey.

ARTICLE SOURCES
[1]

World Health Organization. "Burn-out an ‘occupational phenomenon’: International Classification of Diseases." Accessed February 11, 2020. Updated May 28, 2019.

[2]

Gallup. "Employee Burnout: Causes and Cures." Page(s) 4. Accessed February 11, 2020. Updated 2020.

[3]

The American Institute of Stress. "Workplace Stress." Accessed February 11, 2020. Updated 2020.

[4]

World Population Review. "GDP Ranked by Country 2021." Accessed February 11, 2020. Updated 2021.

[5]

World Health Organization. "Mental Health and Substance Use." Accessed February 11, 2020. Updated 2021.

[6]

Pew Research Center. "How the Coronavirus Outbreak Has – and Hasn’t – Changed the Way Americans Work." Accessed February 11, 2020. Updated December 9, 2020.

[7]

Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Who receives paid vacations?." Accessed February 11, 2020. Updated March 2019.

[8]

American Psychological Association. "2018 Work and Well-Being Survey." Page(s) 2. Accessed February 11, 2020. Updated June 2018.