COVID has made many victims across the world – but for several organizations, the year 2020 has posed challenges to the way they manage the mental health of their employees. During the first wave, in March, more than half of the US adults were reporting psychological distress. Social isolation, general worries about the global situation, their dependents, relatives and loved ones, or their health and economic situation have all played a role in affecting workers’ mental health.
But the context of work has also been more difficult in itself. During the lockdown periods, many firms had to put individuals on furlough (in the UK, ten millions of workers were on furlough in November), and laid off many workers, thus putting additional pressures on remaining employees. Remote work has also affected what social scientists call work-life boundaries: the frontier we set up between our work and our personal life. It has become impossible for employees to refresh their mood if they work at home and live at work, because of being stuck in a home office. This context has deeply eroded the way we separate our professional and personal life.
Those two factors provide a dangerous cocktail for organizations. And it might well have started another pandemic in the workplace: an epidemic of burnouts. A burnout is “is a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job” (according to the reference paper published in the Annual Review of Psychology). Despite this review of research having been cited almost 20 000 times in 20 years, burnout was only recognized as a medical affliction by The World Health Organisation (WHO) last May. A report published in the summer by recruitment firm Robert Walters showed that almost half of the managers polled in the UK were afraid their employees would burnout.
The Domino Effect of Burnouts
The phenomenon of burnouts is not new, but the COVID context created new conditions for burnouts to become contagious. The contagion of burnouts has been well documented in several research papers, for example, in the case of general practitioners, or teachers. Those studies observe mechanisms of emotional contagion – people “tune in” to the emotions of others. When employees are depressed and exhausted, they are likely to pass on those feelings, ultimately affecting the mental health of their co-workers.
But another more straightforward mechanism was at play during COVID: as most firms were already short in labor supply, because of furloughs and laid-off employees, the load of burnt out employees ended up being transferred to the remaining ones, accentuating the pressures on the latter and making them more likely to themselves burn out.
This situation was particularly acute because many employees were pressurizing themselves to overperform. In the context of remote work, their contribution was harder to be assessed and recognized by their hierarchy and peers. Almost 90% of the managers polled by Robert Walters in the summer reported that they wanted to “prove the case for working from home post