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Companies Prioritized Mental Health During Covid, So Why Are We Still So Burned Out?

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More than a year and a half since the pandemic upended everything about daily life and work, Americans are as burned out as ever.

Between December 2020 and July 2021, employees reported a 21% increase in burnout and 17% increase in physical symptoms of stress like muscle tension and fatigue, as well as added work-life balance challenges and overall job stress, according to a survey by the digital wellness company meQuilibrium.

The rise in workplace stress comes even as today's picture of living through the pandemic is much different from a year ago. The 2021 landscape so far includes a vaccine rollout, potential Covid treatments, school and business re-openings, economic recovery and a road map to the end of the most acute phases of the health crisis.

Employers, for their part, have made sweeping investments to help employees manage their mental well-being through it all. During the spring and summer of 2020, in response to the health crisis and then a national recognition of racial disparities, leaders shepherded workers to existing mental health resources like employee resource groups and crisis hotlines. They unveiled new perks to help people process the unrelenting pace of change, such as access to teletherapy, subscriptions to mental health and meditation apps, resiliency coaching and paid time off.

But for all the mental health benefits employees suddenly had at their disposal, little about the demands of work got better. As a result, experts tells CNBC Make It, workers are burning out, moving on to new jobs or dropping out of the workforce altogether.

Things could get worse if leaders don't work toward larger organizational change.

"Workplace factors that contribute to poor mental health don't happen overnight," Kelly Greenwood, CEO of the nonprofit Mind Share Partners, says. "There's a breaking point if there's not an accommodation or solution."

Work itself has become too stressful

American work culture and its relation to workplace burnout is well documented. U.S. workers are some of the most stressed employees in the world, according to Gallup, with 57% reportedly feeling stress on a daily basis in the last year. Rates of daily stress, worry, sadness and anger have trended upward for American workers over the last decade, and the pandemic only added concerns over the virus, sickness, financial insecurity and racial trauma.

As of summer 2021, 50% of employees believe work itself has become too stressful, according to one recent Talkspace survey, with the main causes of stress being busier days or weeks, the pressure of working toward a promotion or raise, managing high turnover and juggling multiple projects at once. The country's recent quitting spree has likely exacerbated these problems.

A report from Mind Share Partners also finds employees experienced increased negative mental health impacts caused by emotionally draining work, which Greenwood describes as tasks that are stressful, overwhelming, boring or monotonous.

"This lines up with what we've been seeing throughout the pandemic, with people working longer and more abnormal hours," Greenwood says. "Paired with unhealthy workplace, ongoing emotionally draining work can cause diagnosable mental health conditions like depression and anxiety."

Workers believe employer support around mental health is declining

Despite the past year's corporate investments in employee well-being, the share of workers who feel their leaders support their mental health declined by nearly 10 percentage points to 71% between December 2020 and July 2021, according to the meQuilibrium report.

The drop coincides with changing business priorities, says Brad Smith, chief science officer at meQuilibrium. In 2020, he says, businesses focused almost all of their efforts on supporting their employees, mentally and physically, through the transition to remote work; by 2021, however, many companies "now have to turn around and figure out how to be competitive, make money and change their business for a new era of work."

As a result, many employees experienced both an increase in work and deprioritization of mental wellness support, he says.

Burned out workers are driving turnover

A majority of workers cite mental health concerns as a reason why they're quitting. According to Talkspace, 2 in 3 people planning to quit their job say their company hasn't followed through on pandemic-era promises to focus more on employee mental health.

The longer workers experience burnout, the less confidence they have that speaking up to managers will do any good, says Talkspace chief medical officer Dr. Varun Choudhary. Instead, they're more likely to quit to go work for an employer they believe will provide better mental health support. According to Talkspace's survey, 41% of employees would rather take a new job in order to resolve stress, rather than tap into existing company policies such as changing teams or taking a short-term leave.

Some people are more likely to indicate plans to quit due to stress, including workers under 35 years old; workers who identify as Black, Indigenous or people of color; and working moms.

These distinctions are crucial for leaders to find solutions from a diversity, equity and inclusion lens, Choudhary says. For example, working moms stand to disproportionately benefit from flexible work to accommodate their caregiving burden; managers must also ensure people who opt into remote work aren't penalized in their careers. And leaders should be aware of the way the medical community has disproportionately harmed Black, Hispanic, Indigenous and other marginalized communities if they plan to support mental health-care access.

Reducing burnout requires changing how work gets done

If organizations really want to move the needle in improving employee well-being, the systems and policies of work itself will have to change, says Tara Thiagarajan, a neuroscientist and founder of the nonprofit Sapien Labs.

"These major mental health challenges we're facing in society come from underlying structural challenges," she says. While some employees may benefit from using a meditation app, text therapy or other digital solutions, she cautions employers against stopping there without investigating how the structure of work itself could be damaging to employee well-being.

"From our perspective, you can't tackle something this significant and immense just by simple Band-Aid solutions," Thiagarajan says.

First, companies must measure the mental state of their workforce and understand what's driving stress. Then, leaders must make structural changes to policies in the way people work.

If someone's main stressor is an overly packed schedule, managers can find ways to reduce meetings, reprioritize important tasks and set more realistic deadlines. More broadly, organizations can assess the need to hire more employees to better balance the workload.

Employers should also measure what personal challenges impact well-being in the workplace, Thiagarajan says. People who experience stress due to systemic socio-economic barriers, such as lack of affordable child care or a long and time-consuming commute, will not benefit from speaking with a therapist or meditating for a few minutes.

Instead, employers could provide more support, decrease stress and improve worker well-being by offering creative strategies that get at the root of the problem.

To address child-care stress, for example, employers can offer discounts to a partner child-care facility, a monthly care stipend, more flexible hours or the option to telework. To decrease the stress of someone's burdensome commute, they could offer a transit stipend, a company shuttle service or the option to telecommute.

Notably, recent findings from the American Psychological Association show workers' no. 1 source of stress remains low pay; raising wages can considerably improve workers' financial standing and mental well-being as a result.

"If companies understand what the overall mental challenges are, they can be more strategic in what kind of employee assistance programs or apps or benefits they can put in place," Thiagarajan says.

Leaders must model better culture

As organizations make structural commitments to better work conditions and worker well-being, Greenwood says leaders must foster a more inclusive environment to discuss mental health challenges, and encourage solutions. Just 49% of employees from the Mind Share Partners report say discussing mental health at work is a positive experience, a share that hasn't budged for two years.

Organizations can prioritize mental health employee resource groups, which are often grassroots led, and make sure they're paired with a strong corporate sponsor. "Having leaders speak transparently around their own mental health challenges can foster an environment of trust," she says.

And managers play a role, too, Choudhary adds, in learning to recognize the signs of employee burnout, working with reports to address concerns and pointing them in the right direction of resources that can help.

Experts agree employers carry a responsibility to invest in their employees' mental well-being. These days, Thiagarajan says, "the company you work for occupies such a large part of your life that there's a responsibility to ensure the mental well-being and overall success of people in the workforce."

It's also an imperative "from a less altruistic point of view," she adds: Healthier and happier workers are more productive. Employers must also recognize the ways they could be causing mental health challenges and understand the role they play in reversing some of them.

Check out:

U.S. workers are among the most stressed in the world, new Gallup report finds

Workers could face new burnout symptoms when returning to the office—here’s how employers can help

‘I’d rather bet on myself’: Workers are quitting their jobs to put themselves firstf

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