Burnout isn’t new to the tech industry, but the pandemic has accelerated the problem while introducing fresh challenges never before faced by an entire workforce at once. Some industries were decimated and left scrambling by a sudden drop in business, while others relied heavily on their tech teams to meet an unprecedented demand for services. Business demands coincided with a sudden work-from-home climate that was further complicated by virtual school and the lack of daycare options, as well as the personal stress of living through a pandemic. All the while, new security threats and demands for innovative services meant no day dawned without brand-new challenges.
And it’s not over yet.
“We’re still learning how these unique stresses are affecting recruitment and retention. But what we can say from years past is that burnout leads to turnover. And organizations that are known to overwhelm tech workers have a harder time recruiting top talent,” says Paul McGaughan, Practice Director for The HT Group Technical Recruiting.
An Epidemic of Burnout
By May 2020, anonymous chat platform Blind found a 12% increase in burnout among workers since February (right before the pandemic started), resulting in 73% of surveyed professionals suffering from the strain. Burnout is particularly high at tech companies: 79% of Google employees who responded to the latest survey say they’re more burned out than before, and 81% of Facebook employees said the same.
Numerous other studies confirm the phenomenon. According to one such study, tech industry employees suffered the broadest negative changes of any industry (including healthcare), showing double-digit increases in burnout (23%), as well as job stress (11%) and disordered sleep (14%) and a 40% drop in motivation.
The shift to working from home didn’t help. While previous studies have shown that work-from-home (WFM) professionals are more productive than their peers, the pandemic era paints a more confusing picture. In a separate Blind poll, 48% of survey respondents report their productivity decreasing since leaving the office. Professionals working at Square and Adobe reported the most significant productivity drains at 73% and 67%, respectively. Other studies show a rosier view: A Mercer study found 94% of employers say productivity has stayed the same or improved since employees started working from home.
But burnout is a different issue. Many workers report that they’ve felt pressured to maintain or increase productivity during the pandemic, which only added to their stress levels. Added stresses both from increased workloads and juggling family responsibilities have made workdays longer. Tech workers at Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Facebook report longer workdays than before the pandemic started. In all, three out of five tech workers said they are working more hours from home compared to what they put in while at the office.
Plus, “while professionals started off eager and happy to be working from home, by the end of the summer, many of them felt their stress level increasing from at-home distractions, no work-life balance, isolation, job insecurities, and lack of networking,” writes Blind’s Yoonmi Park.
A full return to the office won’t be swift. As we covered in our State of Remote Work report, a long list of companies are staying remote until this summer, fall, or even permanently. Google recently announced a plan to start bringing workers back to their offices in September with a flexible work model in place to allow for a hybrid work week: three days in the office, two days WFH. A new CCS Insight survey found that business leaders expect 40% of their workforce to be working from home more than two days a week as we move ahead from the pandemic.
But as we have witnessed, merely allowing employees to work from home won’t stop burnout. The CCS Insight forecast cited above also found that by 2022, one out of every three large firms will cut their spending on office locations by an average of 20% and use the savings to provide home workers with better connectivity, security, devices and peripherals to support collaboration.
Monetary investment in WFH success is a start. But what tech workers need most right now is free, says McGaughan.
“Beyond all else, they want to know that you care, and they want transparency on how you’re going to support them,” he advises.
“If employees feel their employer understands the pressures of the pandemic, the level of stress they feel is significantly less than if they feel their employer doesn’t care,” points out CXO’s N.F. Mendoza, adding that those unsupported by their employers have experienced ten times more stress than their colleagues.
A Cautionary Tale on WFH Productivity
To underscore the importance of transparency and valuing employee wellbeing as much as productivity,
read this Harvard Business Review cautionary tale. It’s about a company that deployed a combination of commonly available tools to monitor employees at home: keystroke monitoring, screen capture, email monitoring, and tracking traffic over the VPN connection. They did it to keep the company’s data safe but also gain “useful information about what employees are doing when they are WFH.” Their major mistake? They didn’t outright tell the employees they were doing it.
Orders for keystroke monitoring software soared 87% in April 2020. This type of employee monitoring is risky business, especially if the organization isn’t transparent. But even when workers are fully aware that these surveillance measures are in place, there’s an obvious roadblock: The lack of privacy and invasion of trust—in one’s own home—can cause stress that leads to burnout, too.
“Employers have the legal right to monitor employees,” says SHRM’s Special Expertise Panel on Global HR member Baskaran Ambalavanan, SHRM-SCP. “At the same time, employers should respect employees’ privacy and be transparent about their actions. When an employer explains the reasons for electronic monitoring, more than half of workers say they’re comfortable with it, according to a 2018 Gartner survey.”
In addition to technical and moral support, some organizations are teaching employees to be more resilient. For example, Google is investing in “resilience training” for its workforce. The training focuses on short employee-facing videos offering tips on being stress-resilient through things like instilling good sleep habits and curbing anxiety.
Meditation app Headspace has seen a more than 500% increase in interest from companies seeking mental health help for their workforces. And Calm, Headspace’s rival, states that more than 600 organizations use their employee wellbeing plans to build more resilient workforces.
These programs are great for retention, but they’re also helpful for recruiting. Nearly 90% of job seekers say health and wellness packages help influence their employment decisions. And for about one-third of Millennials and younger, wellness programs are a top priority when considering places to work.
“You just need to be sure that you’re coming at resiliency from a space of wellness and increasing employee happiness. Pushing resiliency only to stress employees more and work them harder than you already won’t help anyone,” says McGaughan.
Augmenting heavy workload periods with contingent labor can help, too (stay tuned for more on that topic next month). It allows your core teams to focus on mission-critical tasks while contractors tackle projects that have been sitting in your queue for some time. For more tips from McGaughan and his team and for top technical recruiting and technical staffing help, feel free to contact us or learn more here.