Back to work will not fix engagement and burnout

Going back to work will not fix our employee engagement, morale, and burnout. Why? Neither were these problems created by working from home. They were created as a result of prolonged stress during COVID. Working from home was never the cause. It’s simply the context in which these events occurred.

Are you willing to go deeper?… To better understand the root cause and how to best address it? Or are you exhausted and prefer to retreat to blissful ignorance?

Mercer has a great visual attempting to articulate the complexity of this issue… especially how organizations understand (and don’t understand) their employee’s mental health affecting work:

Mercer People Risks 2022

The obvious fact here is that executives (even in HR) are ill-prepared and poorly equipped to understand the complexity of employee mental health affecting the workplace, especially after such a traumatic global event as COVID. Consequently, as senior leaders, we should be very wary of having these three beliefs / sentiments:

1. If employees could just come back to the office (the way it used to be), everything would get better / back to “normal”.

Do we actually believe that simply returning to the office will reduce years of mental damage, repair our toxic culture, fix our staff morale, and heal workplace burnout? Is it possible that even if you do go back to the office BUT have not addressed your stress and burnout, you will be just as stressed and burnout? Here is why this is not true:

  • Even a year ago Gallup and others warned going back to work alone will not solve our problems… because the problem is far more complex for both individuals and companies.
  • Forbes also warned that returning back to work may actually decrease productivity… accounting for the fact that some employees are not really working when at home.
  • Even HBR warned that going back to work may create more employee stress and burnout. This in fact may be the very reason why employees want to stay at home (easier manage their stress).

There is an appeal to believing that going back to the old normal will fix things. Victims of personal trauma often have the same belief. It’s comforting. It’s simple. It’s easy. But this is just a wish. It’s rarely true. It takes years to recover from trauma. First, we need to create a new “normal” and heal from there.

2. Mental well-being is the responsibility of the employee, not their senior leader.

We often deal with this topic in the same way we did pre-COVID, where a very small percentage of our employees suffered from mental health issues and burnout. And because it wasn’t a norm, we managed it as an exception. But that’s not the new normal anymore.

Let’s compare this to employee productivity programs we introduce to our businesses. If we estimate that a specific training program would only have a 7% productivity improvement, we would likely leave it with the manager or employee to decide. But if we learn that a program has the ability to improve employee productivity by 67%, we would likely want to roll it out across the whole organization. We would even make it part of our annual strategy.

So if more than 50% of your staff are suffering from mental health issues, is it still just their problem to manage? Or is it now a systematic organizational challenge for all levels of management to care about and do something about?

Let me be very strategic about this: Don’t solve employee burnout and mental health as an employee problem… solve it as a market opportunity… as a competitive advantage… and to demonstrate to prospective hires that you actually care about them.

How about now? Should you focus on that? Or are you simply avoiding the topic because you’re not comfortable with it or don’t know how to solve it?

3. These problems do not apply to the CXO level. We have somehow overcome them. We are fine.

I run a session last year with all senior leaders of one of the largest Canadian nonprofits. I was able to create a safe space and invited them to share what’s happening to the person behind the professional. One by one they opened up about death in their family, panic attacks, burnout, and many other ways COVID caught them by surprise and pivoted their life in unexpected ways. If you’re human, you are experiencing impact. If it’s not directly, it’s through friends and family.

  • Most 2021 and 2022 research studies place employee burnout rates in North America between 50% to 70%. Deloitte’s recent Burnout Survey places it much higher at 77% (84% for millennials). Many sources including CEO Magazine quote research confirming this rate is higher at the CXO level.
  • That matches the executive Great Resignation patterns. Forbes estimates almost 70% of executives are planning to leave their work at least partly due to stress and mental health.

If you do believe that we as senior leaders are somehow immune to these issues… then you’re likely in denial. In fact, this very denial is probably how you’re coping with the fact that you are very stressed, afraid, and burned out.


How do we heal? How do we get better? Here are some of the approaches that will actually help.

A. Rebuild the trust by accepting your staff working arrangement preferences

At least 50% of your staff want to work from home or hybrid working arrangements. Stop pushing them to come back to the office. Listen to both their logic as well as the emotions behind them. Understand the stress and burnout they are still managing. Yes, restrictions are largely lifted. No, the trauma and stress have not gone away.

B. Shift to a less transactional way of engaging with your team, no matter where they work

Given the new normal (hybrid / work-from-home), find new ways to engage and motivate your teams. Find new ways to create connections within and outside of your teams. Find better ways to onboard new staff to create trust and feel like they are part of something. It’s OK that you don’t know how to do this yet. There are lots of organizations having early success in this area.

C. Train your leaders to have regular meaningful conversations with their teams… and you

Remember that iceberg picture at the top of this article? Accept your leaders are ill-prepared and poorly equipped. Then bridge that gap. Provide them with training and coaching on how to balance business goals with employee mental health. In fact, this last step fuels the previous two above. It’s your fastest easiest win.

Take a page from Microsoft’s Satya Nadella at Adam Grant’s ReThinking Podcast, and meet your employees where they are… so they can meet you where you are.


How we can help

We, the Renaissance Partners, are here to here to help in your journey… equipping you to thrive in the new normal and accelerating sustainable productivity. Whether you’re still trying to figure this out and just need a Burnout workshop… or you’re already addressing these opportunities but need a way to accelerate the impact via a larger program… we are here to partner with you.

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