Burnout didn’t pass with the pandemic’s peak — so what’s going on?

Andy Baker
6 min readMar 8


Man with head buried under his laptop on the desk.

You’d think workplace burnout peaked with the pandemic, right?


There’s growing research to suggest that continuous economic unrest, layoff fears and rigorous return-to-office policies are unsettling many of today’s workers.

In fact, recent statistics suggest up to 42% of the global workforce is feeling burnt out. To put that figure into context, that’s four per cent higher than the reported figures from May 2021 (38%).

That’s not the full story, though. To make matters worse, those who aren’t feeling the strain already are well on their way to doing so. That’s because, as of last year, almost half (46%) of the workers surveyed by Westfield Health were reportedly close to burning out.

But what about remote working?

It was the dream for anyone who’d had to deal with the daily commute. Surely, it was supposed to make things easier. That was the opinion held by a lot of old-school managers, anyway

“PJs in project meetings and duvets for desktops — what a doddle,” they’d say.

The truth is: there’s research to suggest it’s a lot harder than it sounds — especially for the youngest members of our workforce.

Is WFH making things worse for Gen Z?

The study at Westfield Health revealed that people who’d been WFH for the last 18 months were more likely to feel at risk of burnout (50%) than those who’d been going to the workplace (41%).

Right. So, what’s going on?

Well, it’s likely those first entering the workforce are missing out on the standard social cues you get from office life; you know, those natural, unofficial breaks and “water cooler moments”.

It makes sense if you think about it. Nobody teaches you this behaviour and there’s just no context for it if you’ve never been in an office.

Worse still, further research suggests Gen Z workers are actually skipping breaks in order to “prove themselves”. In fact, 51% of younger remote employees were worried their manager “had doubts about their productivity,” leading 44% to work longer hours and 37% to skip lunch breaks.

The thing is, though, there’s no smoke without fire.

The toxic relationship between paranoia and productivity

Microsoft surveyed 20,000 people in 11 countries, analysing trillions of Microsoft 365 productivity signals and LinkedIn labour trends.

Its findings around the effects of hybrid work were worrying, to say the least.

Up to 85% of leaders say the shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that employees are being productive.

But this kind of thinking can become a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy.

Take time-logging software to track staff activities, for example. This can often undermine employee trust from the start and lead to “productivity theatre”,

What’s that, exactly?

Essentially, productivity theatre is behaviours such as frequently updating Slack or toggling your mouse to make sure the status light in Microsoft Teams is green.

“They say hello and goodbye, and they drop into different channels throughout the day to chitchat. They check in with managers and just tell anyone what they’re working on. They even join meetings they don’t need to be in (and there are many more meetings) and answer emails late into the night,” says Rano Molla in ‘ Remote workers are wasting their time proving they’re actually working’ for Vox.

Sound exhausting? It is. Especially when there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that employees are working.

And often even harder than before the pandemic sent us into our private silos. In fact, Microsoft’s research found that the majority of employees (87%) said they were productive at work.

But you don’t need to take their word for it.

Microsoft also reported that the number of meetings per week had increased by 153% for the average Microsoft Teams user since the start of the pandemic. And there is no indication this trend has reversed. What’s more, overlapping meetings (being double-booked) increased by 46% per person in the past year.

But a meeting isn’t necessarily working, is it?

It is if you’re spinning plates and wearing multiple hats in an organisation; a growing likelihood if your organisation is stretched thinly amidst The Great Resignation. This is supported by Microsoft’s research which suggests that, in an average week, 42% of participants multitask during meetings by sending an email or ping. And this doesn’t include reading incoming emails and notifications, working in non-meeting files or web activity, either.

What do all of these figures add up to? An upward trend in overwork and burnout.

But what can you actually do as an employer?

Don’t panic and go back to the old ways

It’s easy to look back with rose-tinted glasses, isn’t it? Especially when it comes to the shared resilience we showed over the past couple of years.

“Burnout almost made sense earlier in the pandemic. There was so much change and chaos, who wouldn’t feel burned out?” asked Rani Molla in ‘ Burnout was supposed to get better. It hasn’t.’ for Vox.

But the antidote to burnout and hidden overwork isn’t to go back to the ways things were. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that WFH and flexible working policies can be a good fit for staff if they’re managed effectively.

And that’s the point.

The effects of overwork aren’t anything new. Not when mismanagement has always been an issue. In fact, burnout was officially recognised as an occupational phenomenon worldwide in 2019 — before the pandemic fully took hold.

Fast forward to today and research suggests that almost two-thirds (63%) of 18–24-year-olds would consider looking for a new job if their employer insisted on a full-time return to the workplace. And when this age group is the future of our workforce, there’s really no point to look backwards, is there?

The thing is, not all employers are listening.

“…many bosses — some of whom are responsible for burnout in the first place — seem uninterested in improving working conditions and are falling back into old ways. The most obvious manifestation of this is requiring office workers to return to the office, something that’s applying to employees more than their bosses,” says Molla.

But burnout isn’t inevitable. Not if you build a healthy workplace culture from three basic principles

  1. Encourage annual leave: Debates around the four-day working week and mental health holidays will continue to rage on. But in the meantime, you can still look at your staff’s relationship with annual leave. This doesn’t necessarily mean increasing your standard package if it’s unsustainable to do so. But you can encourage staff to take their holidays. Sure, it’s harder to spot overwork when staff are remote- but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
  2. Motivate with micro-breaks: These mini-excursions from our desks don’t just help us rest and recuperate; they enable new ideas to flow more freely. Even 10 minutes at a time is enough, so encourage staff to break up their days with a coffee in the kitchen, stroll around the block or whatever else it takes to get them away from their desks.
  3. Lead by example: Finally, there’s no point encouraging staff to take more breaks or use their annual leave if you aren’t doing it yourself. Sure, being a good manager means leading by example during office hours. But it’s also about what you do outside work. So, create a culture where answering emails at the weekend isn’t normalised and ‘away’ or ‘out of lunch’ on Slack means exactly that.

Looking for some more ideas? We’ve gone into detail about promoting healthier working habits here.

Above all else, tackling burnout is about control; something we all lost a lot of during the pandemic. However, the blurred boundaries of remote working and continued economic unrest mean it’s not getting any easier to get a handle on it either. In fact, various workplace research studies have shown that any perceived lack of control is a key driver of employee burnout. But this isn’t just about those neverending to-dos — although they certainly play their part. Instead, it can come from a lack of time, an expectation to overwork and the perception that staff aren’t trusted to use the time they do have productively.

At the end of the day, we don’t need another pandemic to tell us something’s not working — and it’s not the staff. So don’t wait for burnout to rear its ugly head. Build some healthy work-life boundaries and make balance part of the job spec. Your prospects did some reflecting during the pandemic, and burnout just isn’t worth the overtime.

Originally published at https://employers.digitalgrads.com on March 8, 2023.



Andy Baker

Friendly neighbourhood copy chameleon. Whatever the tone, I’ve got you.