A recent sketch from American TV show Saturday Night Live almost perfectly defined the way many are feeling at this point–month 12–of the COVID-19 pandemic: I was fine through the fall but now I’ve hit a wall and I’m loco, as in my brain done broke-o. The lyrics are meant to be comical and irreverent. They also speak to an honest reality for across the country and around the world: we’re stressed at work.
While the pandemic has affected different kinds of workplaces in different ways, for many workers these changes have been largely negative. Knowledge workers are frequently coping with stressors that either didn’t exist before or were not as prevalent prior to the so-called new normal.
There’s a wealth of advice for individuals on how to manage stress. But what’s collectively stressing us out at work in 2021? And what can organizations and employers do about it?
1. World events
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that issues outside of work can influence our workplace in significant ways. Case in point: the direct effect of living through a global pandemic.
From a December 2020 study by the Pew Research Center, of the 71% of workers working from home partially or the majority of the time, only 36% are feeling motivated to do their work.
Additionally, with the lack of a physical office setting, 65% of workers feel less connected to their coworkers—people they may have often spent more time with than family members or roommates pre-pandemic, and potentially their main source of human interaction. Remote work doesn’t have to mean a lack of connection, but an abrupt transition might mean that employees and employers have not had a chance to adjust.
In a May 2020 study, Pew Research found that 33% of employees experienced “high” psychological stress in March and April, the beginnings of nationwide sheltering-in-place and a period where there was still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the virus. Additionally, with the uncertainty surrounding how COVID-19 spread, 45% of workers expressed extreme concern over becoming sick and being hospitalized, leading to further distress.
Companies can’t do anything about the pandemic itself. At the same time, there’s a silver lining: We can learn from it. Work from home policies have also given employees a taste of flexible work and how effective that can be.
Promoting flexible work as a benefit can be one way for employers to offset the general malaise of working during a pandemic. In other words, employers can try to make other parts of work–like the commute–less stressful.
Allison Task, a career and life coach with 16 years’ experience based in Montclair, New Jersey, noticed these factors and others as the pandemic has progressed. Prior to the shutdowns, 60% of Task’s clients were based in the Tri-State Area of the United States–New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. But as the pandemic continued, those numbers now hover at 30%.
“One of the biggest pain points is the commute. It’s gone from you tolerated it and you hated it, to now realizing you don’t have to do it,” said Task. “If you’re not going to at least consider flexibility, after everyone’s had a taste of how effective they can be without being in person all the time, you’re going to lose staff.”
But it’s not just the commute and the ability to work from home that matters, although they are important pieces in the puzzle.
2. Poor work life balance
Poor work life balance often comes from treating your workers as workers above all else, disregarding the fact that they are people with lives. The boundaries so key to work life balance have also been blurred by the pandemic. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 26% of those surveyed said it’s harder to balance their work and family lives now than before the pandemic.
Working from home has also meant additional responsibilities at home: caring for and teaching children, caring for sick family members, and general household upkeep. These things might not have anything to do with the employee’s workload at work. But the strain they put on the individual can show up at work.
“You can’t just take care of people with a paycheck and benefits,” said Task. “You’ve got to take care of the socio-emotional health and mental health of your staff too–taking care of the whole person.”
3. Ineffective time management
Career coach Latesha Byrd said that some of the most common stressors for her clients pre-COVID-19 were around ineffective management, time management issues or heavy workload, and conflict within team environments.
In some ways, all of these stressors are related. Effective time management, for example, can help ease workloads. And often, ineffective management of people has to do with the ineffective management of their time. All of the above done poorly can contribute to tensions and conflict.
“If an employee has too much on their plate and not enough support or a lack of processes to actually complete their work in a timely manner, this can cause undue stress,” Byrd said.
Both individual employees and teams might find that better time management helps ease workloads.
But once again, it’s important to remember that employees are people, and to factor in not just quantitative changes in workload but also qualitative changes in the work environment.
“Change in itself can be exhausting, adding to that the political turmoil, the racial climate, and the economic and health-care downturn,” said Byrd. “You also now have parents managing or helping their children adjust to a virtual learning environment, and doing their job simultaneously.”
3. Poor communication
For those without loved ones nearby, the lack of human connection can take a toll, and poor communication at work can contribute to the toll. Returning to the Pew Research Center findings, of teleworkers who use online tools (instant messaging platforms like Slack or Google Chat), 35% believe it’s not a good substitute for in-person contact. Further, 37% of teleworkers who use video conferencing often are worn out by the systems–known more commonly as “Zoom fatigue.”
33% of workers surveyed by Pew said they feel less connected to their coworkers than ever before.
At the same time, the solution isn’t to take away what is often the sole method of communication for some companies, especially those with distributed workforces. Rather, it’s to think about how to improve the quality of communication.
Byrd has been diligent with her clients, encouraging them to be upfront and initiate those critical conversations about the stressors with their managers and employers. Not only is this an example of good communication, it can also be a way to solve other things that cause stress at work.
“(It’s vital) to explain how their lifestyle has been impacted due to the pandemic, and any new scheduling or workload changes that would need to be adjusted with the impeding factors,” she said.
3. Poor compensation
Feeling financially insecure is stressful. If you’re financially insecure, also working long hours and not being fairly compensated for it, that can be doubly stressful.
According to Task, it’s important to address how you are being compensated for the work you are doing. While there are companies doing well economically, they are sometimes asking staff to take cutbacks—while also asking staff to take on more work.
From the perspective of the employer, it’s important to listen.
“If you are not behaving ethically financially, or giving employees’ promotions without the raise, that’s a problem,” she said. “This culture of working your way up has gotten a lot worse–it’s that same culture of use and abuse, take advantage…the work-life balance has become steadily worse.”
But the consequences extend beyond just individual employees and their being stressed at work. The industries suffer, too.
“These industries that kind of break you, burn you, and dangle a pot of gold in front of you are breaking down because you don’t get that pot of gold at the top anymore,” said Task.
The consequences of being stressed at work
According to a December 2020 study from the Pew Research Center, 23% of employees are less satisfied with their jobs than before the COVID-19 outbreak.
In the same survey, about 19% said they have less job security and fewer opportunities for advancing from their current positions.
While these opinions are in the minority, these feelings still need to be accounted for as we assess what workplaces will be like in 2021.
In many ways, Task has experience with this instability firsthand; when her husband was laid off as a financial journalist in August 2020, he took on caregiving for their three young children. But as she knows, the same is not true for many women who take on the brunt of caregiving children and family members nationwide.
“If you are in a traditional heterosexual marriage, there’s a lot of traditional, dysfunctional expectations over who does what,” she said. “About 2.5 million women have left the workforce–that’s a big deal.”
“I do believe that the worst stressors we’re seeing now will have long-lasting impacts and effects,” Byrd said. “This pandemic has essentially uprooted our entire lives and well-beings, from how we work to how we socialize to how we generally live.”
For employees who are stressed at work, Byrd suggests a reassessment of values.
“I recommend that everyone take some time to think about what’s most important to them at work and outside of work, in order to find a workplace that provides not only a safe space to bring your best self to work,” Byrd said, “but to allow you to get the support you need.”
It’s equally critical for employers to remain in tune with these sentiments. As employees across the country continue to assess their work-life balance and future hopes for their work, the companies who employ them should also take the time to evaluate if their employees are happy, fulfilled, and valued.