How is the Australian workforce coping with COVID?

Thursday, 13 August, 2020

How is the Australian workforce coping with COVID?

How is the nation’s workforce tracking during the COVID-19 pandemic and what can be done to build resilience as we move forward?

The COVID-19 People Survey was created by Springfox to measure where Australian leaders and staff sit emotionally, cognitively and socially with respect to COVID-19. Data was gathered from more than 500 Australian professionals across industries including education, professional services, banking and finance, government and health.

The ensuing report — The Australian Workforce Response to COVID-19: A call for courage, connection and compassion — provides organisations with the insight they need to ensure their teams are equipped to operate with sustainable high performance at this critical time and over the next year.

Facing the pandemic from a shaky baseline

A previous Springfox report based on survey data collected throughout 2019 revealed that increased worry, fatigue and self-criticism were putting Australians’ productivity and mental health at risk, with 83% feeling overloaded and agitated at work; 82% citing difficulty in remaining mentally alert and engaged in tasks; and 79% feeling they lacked the endurance and flexibility required to navigate changes.

“As we now collectively grapple with the repercussions of a changing and uncertain world, we predict feelings of angst, fatigue and worry will worsen if employers do not intervene and take proactive measures to protect and strengthen their workers’ resilience,” Springfox CEO Stuart Taylor said.

Stressed out by work changes

In the COVID-19 People Survey, 55% of respondents said their main cause of stress was changes to ways of working. For many, the response to changing work environments has been to compensate with hyper-engagement, which impacts on mental health and predisposition to burnout.

The main drivers of stress were: working with technology; blurred boundaries; time management issues; ‘always-on’ culture; and worry about the future. Worry/anxiety was reported as a prevailing emotion, felt by 21.7% of survey participants.

Despite stress levels and workloads increasing in response to the crisis, workers aged over 55 reported the lowest negative impact, with only 19.5% of this cohort reporting a decline in positivity, optimism and trust, and only 17.9% reporting worry and anxiety as the dominant emotion.

In those aged 25–34 years, 60.6% reported high stress levels, the highest percentage of any age group.

Worry and anxiety was reported by 25.9% of female respondents — twice the level of males.

Returning to work

Most respondents (67%) are feeling okay or positive about returning to work, but more were in favour of not returning to the workplace (33%) than excited about the return (25.3%).

Females were almost twice as anxious or cautious about returning to the office as males (26.7% vs 14.1%).

For many respondents, a preference for working from home is driven by fear of risks associated with going into the office.

A quarter (25%) of respondents said they were excited at the prospect of working from home in the future as it provides the opportunity to enjoy the flexibility experienced during the pandemic, including no commute.

Proven interventions

The report found that the factors associated with depression, anxiety and mental illness greatly improved when organisations prioritised employee wellbeing and invested in resilience programs.

Q&A with Springfox CEO Stuart Taylor

A majority of working Australians report feeling overloaded and agitated at work despite many organisations claiming to support a work-life balance. Where are we going wrong?

Firstly, I don’t believe there is such thing as work-life balance — it’s a falsehood that is arguably unachievable. To say that work and life are separate things is, in effect, a nonsense, as they’re a part of the same picture. At Springfox we instead advocate for work-life integration and look at how to engage those two as a single unit.

The working from home scenario has combined work and life together in a dramatic way. In our latest Resilience Report, 83% of workers reported feeling overloaded and agitated at work — and that was before working from home. Now the ability to balance our day has arguably gotten worse.

It’s important to consider where we might have gone wrong. There is a clear conflict of interest between advocating work-life balance and at same time advocating strong business targets and outcomes. In an ideal world they go together, but in reality, they don’t. If business targets and outcomes increase, as they invariably do, does the organisation need to get more people to deliver on that target? The answer is no. The trick is not advocating or supporting work-life balance, it’s putting that responsibility on the staff member who typically doesn’t have the power to say no to those business targets.

The responsibility for leaders is for them to help staff to thrive rather than feel overloaded and agitated. From an organisational perspective, it makes no sense at all to have staff experiencing such distress. This only results in greater turnover and decreased performance and productivity, which ultimately impacts the bottom line.

What are the key factors leading Australians to burn out?

Unfortunately, in the majority of cases, it’s the nature of being part of commercial organisations — that’s a key factor of the economic reality that we’ve chosen to be part of. Unless organisations are prepared to provide the resources to address this, it will continue to occur.

Workers also have the responsibility of investing in themselves to be at their best in terms of energy, focus and capability, and this must begin with the basics of healthy, sustainable living (nutrition, exercise, mindfulness and sleep). The absence of this foundation collides with the pressures of work to create a perfect storm ie, burnout.

Leaders need to ask, ‘Does a staff member feel like they can say no or challenge their priorities when they realise the list of things they need to get done is beyond the time they need to do those things?’

If the culture within a workplace is fear-based, staff will not feel comfortable to speak up and ask to re-evaluate their priorities. Instead, they will only pedal harder.

How has COVID-19 made the situation worse?

COVID-19 has resulted in a significant and unprecedented blurring of boundaries. When we think about the impact COVID-19 has had in forcing us into remote working, realistically we should be finding ourselves with more time than before. Instead of commuting 30 minutes or so every morning and evening, we should now have a little extra time to allocate to other activities — whether that be spending time with family, exercising, meditating or simply cooking a nourishing meal. Yet, as our report reveals, we’re instead using this time for work, putting in longer and longer hours in the home office.

In addition, there is also the emotional aspect of remote working. Our report revealed loneliness was a very common feeling amongst female participants, with 25.9% reporting feelings of worry and anxiety, a figure twice the level of males. Therefore, we need to consider that for many people, remote working will be a considerable challenge.

Some Australians say that working from home suits them better, allowing them to balance other responsibilities more easily? Would you say this is the exception rather than the rule?

No, I wouldn’t say this is the exception at all — a lot of people find working from home fantastic. In fact, according to our survey findings, around 33% don’t want to return to work after COVID, while approximately 40% were ‘okay’ about it.

Introverts have a huge preference for working from home rather than the office, and more technical people, for example, would be in that group, too. The challenge, however, is that the remote working model is not perfect. When it comes to elements like trust, innovation and relationships, we need to recognise that these can be difficult to transition into a remote workplace, and therefore we need to consider how we can reimagine these concepts in the context of a remote arrangement.

What can employees do if they suspect they might be at risk of burnout?

Reach out to a GP. This should be the first port of call. Employees can also access professional support through a psychologist or through their workplace’s EAP service. The bottom line is, if you feel at risk of burnout, reaching out for support should be a priority. Your first option might be having a chat with loved ones, but it’s important that it goes beyond this and to a professional, where you can seek proper intervention.

Have a conversation with your boss if possible. Speaking to your manager about your concerns is important, but only if you feel comfortable and safe to do so. These conversations are much easier to have in high-trust cultures where leaders operate with compassion, authenticity and, of course, under confidentiality.

Invest in yourself. Consider what you’re doing to care for your physical and mental health. Committing to daily exercise, prioritising sleep and improving your diet are all fundamental elements of wellbeing.

What can employers do to ensure staff are not vulnerable to burnout?

Be in tune with how your staff are travelling. Especially in challenging times, it’s important that leaders are in tune with their staffs’ mental wellbeing. Leaders should focus on practising empathy to better understand how their staff are coping, and to identify those who are thriving versus those who are not. This also allows leaders to intervene sooner rather than later. If someone is looking confused or overloaded, there is an opportunity for leaders to coach them into a place of calmness and clarity.

Work with your team to ensure they’re clear on priorities. Communication and transparency are vital when it comes to leading staff through stressful times. Communicate often and openly with your team to maintain focus and instil a sense of purpose, calm and clarity.

Build resilience in your staff through education. Our research has shown building resilience reduces mental ill health — such as depression and anxiety — by 32%. Springfox offers comprehensive resilience training to help organisations and their people thrive with agility, sustainability and compassion, and a greater understanding of what ‘wellbeing’ means on both a personal and organisational level.

Be a resilient leader. This involves leading by example in terms of prioritising wellbeing to allow yourself to thrive rather than burn out. When leaders model resilient behaviour from the top down, staff across all levels of the organisation feel empowered to follow suit. In turn, this creates a positive workplace culture that supports staff wellbeing.

Create a high-trust culture. A high-trust culture that is built on compassionate leadership is integral for preventing burnout in staff. Our recent COVID-19 survey found a significant disconnect between leaders and staff on the topic of trust, with 16.5% of leaders perceiving a drop in their staffs’ level of trust, while almost double the amount of staff (32%) self-reported a decrease in trust. I refer to this disconnect as leaders’ ‘blissful delusion’, in which leaders believe they are successfully operating in a way that keeps staff contented and on-track, when the reality can be quite different.

Image credit: © Andrejchenko

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