Similar to a virus mutation that can result in new variants with different symptoms, our data indicates that the key symptoms of burnout are mutating, resulting in a new burnout variant. Burnout has evolved from being dominated by exhaustion and inefficacy to being driven by frustration, absenteeism, and cynicism. In the past year, we have observed a 49% increase in cynicism, a 35% increase in absenteeism, and a 43% increase in frustration compared to 2021 and 2022 data collected from demographically and geographically diverse healthcare clients.1 We believe this change represents a new variant of organizational burnout.
The key distinctions of the 2023 burnout variant include:
- High level of absenteeism—not physical, but mental and emotional
- Divisive increases in conflict and frustration
- Persistent exhaustion
- Emergence of cynicism as a prominent symptom
Collectively, this variant impacts an organization in unique and different ways. For example, increases in conflict and frustration within healthcare systems reflect the perceptions of employees with flexible work arrangements and those without flexibility. Additionally, high levels of absenteeism are related to persistent exhaustion. When leadership ignores the employee preference for specific communication channels, eventually employees will tune out all communication and effectively become “absent” from the organization in that they are no longer willing to be “unheard.” Lastly, there is a significant presence of cynicism. This increased level of cynicism is likely related to the perceived lack of control in the organization.
What led to this new type of burnout? Like much of the change in our global environment, this variant of burnout ties back to the COVID-19 pandemic. A “Great Disconnect” has occurred as many of the supports we once relied on at work have been lost. With people working from home, we no longer have the same anchors that define the social aspect of going to work, including psychological support received through interpersonal relationships. In addition, we have observed a rise in value-based job hunting—driven by social awareness—with employees leaving jobs and organizations that no longer align with their personal values. High levels of cognitive dissonance combined with a lack of support further exacerbate the conflict and fatigue that are a natural reaction to large-scale organizational change. And although the human brain is adaptive, we are not able to evolve as quickly or efficiently as society or the business world may require.
Leaders and managers find this situation confounding as they strive for solutions to address the new burnout variant. Pressure to address employee burnout is no longer simply internal; regulators and investors in many industries are looking to better understand how organizations will care for their people. Employee well-being is part of the overarching environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting trend in which consumers seek companies that align with their values.
Employees and consumers alike are expecting more from their organizations; pay raises and flexible time off are no longer sufficient. In the long term, industries across the economy are projected to face significant employee deficits in the coming years, making talent retention even more important. Notable shortages will include:
- Physicians – 40,000 to 125,000 shortage in 10 years2
- Airline Pilots – 80,000 shortage in 10 years3
- Software Developers – Unfilled positions growing by 200,000 per year4
Most employers respond to high levels of turnover and burnout by offering highly competitive salaries and flexible benefit plans—and while this may help in the short term, these methods have proven to be to be a “race to the bottom” as employers continue to imitate one another. Employees can abandon ship for the next highest bidder, leaving leaders back at square one. To realize the envisioned benefit of their investment in talent and retention, organizations should focus on career growth and development and fostering a strong sense of connection and community within the organization. Investing in an employee as an individual shows them that they are a valuable part of your team, and not an interchangeable cog in the corporate wheel. Employers need to focus on the growing movement of employee care, instead of addressing the pressures of the moment with flashy perks.
Bottom line: When you are attempting to drive retention and recruitment objectives in the face of this new variant, there are three baseline actions that will enhance the health and readiness of your employees at work:
- Take inventory: Create a dynamic portfolio of benefits available to enhance your employee value proposition and provide employees with a sense of control.
- Collect data: Gain a fact-based understanding of the connection with your workforce through the deployment of a diagnostic survey.
- Share information: Involve your employees through increased communication as the organization continues to evolve.
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