It’s a fact that probably won’t come as a surprise: energy levels are at new lows in Australia.
The 2021 Christmas season marks the third summer in a row to be bulldozed by either natural disasters or a global pandemic, and Australian workers are well and truly over it.
Now it’s showing up in the figures.
New research from Gartner has found the percentage of workers willing to go above and beyond at work fell to 13.9 per cent in the third quarter of 2021, and Gartner HR vice-president Aaron McEwan doesn’t see this number improving anytime soon.
“This started around the bushfires of 2019. That was a tough year,” McEwan told Yahoo Finance.
“We had a horrible drought and then a bushfire season and that disrupted people’s holidays.
“I recall people coming back after Christmas in early 2020, and it was like zombies coming back to work. They hadn’t rested and they hadn’t taken a break and they were anxious.”
Months later, the outbreak of COVID-19, rolling lockdowns and remote work put workers under new and added pressures.
The overall listlessness isn’t aided by the Great Resignation. Employees are either pulling the plug on their current roles, or watching their colleagues do it.
It’s led to a combined feeling of workplace dissatisfaction, and confidence that better opportunities could be found elsewhere, McEwan said.
“There’s a very strong sense that, ‘we have proven ourselves, we’ve done the hard work, we’ve done the hard yards, we’ve delivered on what you’ve asked for us. Now it’s time to give us a break’,” McEwan said.
He said the reality was that the workforce was well past the point of preventing mass burnout, and it was time to figure out how to recover from it.
For workers and for businesses, the lesson is clear. This time around, lunchtime yoga and free snacks aren’t going to cut it.
Do you know what the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic looks like?
The first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic came in the form of immediate mortality and morbidity, University of British Columbia researchers warned in July last year.
The second came in the form of people receiving delayed diagnoses and treatments of other illnesses, like cancers.
Then came the third wave, which saw people with chronic conditions experience interrupted care.
Now comes the fourth wave: psychic trauma, mental illness, economic injury and burnout.
Kris Grant, CEO at management consultancy ASPL Group, has ended up in hospital twice due to burnout.
Now an expert in leadership and workplace health, she predicts Australia’s depleted mental and emotional energy reserves are going to pose a “significant problem”.
“Mental health is a significant problem, which ties into [burnout]. Is burnout a challenge? Yes,” Grant told Yahoo Finance.
“A lot of people don’t recognise they’re in burnout because they don’t have significant self-awareness. They get on the burnout train and deliver more, and more, and more. And suddenly they’re exhausted … It’s easy to do.”
“The fourth wave is the biggest and the most long-lasting,” he said.
“When we looked at the importance of the health of employees … what we found was that 9 per cent … experienced a significant decline in mental health, to such a point that we called it damaged health.”
And that’s something organisations need to repair, if they want to succeed in 2022.
6 things workers need to do to survive the new year
With just days left in 2021, there are a few things workers can do to set themselves up for a gentle start to 2022, according to McEwan and Grant.
1. Ruthlessly prioritise
Marie Kondo your work, McEwan advises. Figure out the areas that absolutely need doing, and talk to your manager about ditching the rest.
Workplaces, he believes, have a cluttering problem. New initiatives, tasks and reports are added with startling frequency, but nothing is ever taken away.
This Christmas, it’s time to ditch the unnecessary work. That’ll make it easier for employees to achieve the second step.
2. Tie up the loose ends
Now that you’ve figured out the ‘must-do tasks’ for December and January, do them.
While it’s tempting to leave unfinished things as “2022’s problem”, unfinished work admin is only going to dampen the holiday mood and add to stress over any time off.
3. Use your leave
Actually take a break. You’ve completed your tasks, now it’s time to delete the email app from your phone and read a book.
“Employees have been running a marathon, and we know that as soon as we get into next year, the growth ambitions that organisations have, will have improved because of the economy. Workers are going to be asked to run a triathlon. So if workers don’t rest, they’re going to injure themselves.”
4. Book a holiday
The Great Vacation is around the corner, and you don’t want to be left behind.
According to Roy Morgan research, the number of annual leave days owing in Australia leapt to a record high of 185 million days, in the year to September.
So, get that leave request in. Then you can start the new year with something to look forward to.
5. Set a loose goal
Take the time over the break to think about one thing you’d like to achieve in the new year.
Don’t overthink it, this is just to feel a sense of control and purpose about what you can do - but it doesn’t need to be a 10-point plan.
6. Look at your workflow and find what works for you
If you want to start the year on the front foot, the best thing you can do is monitor your energy flows over the break. When do you have the most energy during the day, and when do you have the least?
What conversations leave you feeling emotionally depleted, and which ones build you up?
Are you funnelling negative energy into things that don’t matter? They’re questions only you can answer, but according to Grant, they’re well worth asking.
When you have an idea of your energy flow, you’ll find it easier to build a great rhythm in the new year.
A wake up call for bosses
While there are steps employees can take to manage the start of the new year, McEwan believes a lot of it comes down to leaders actually getting real.
“What happens if you have these dysfunctional workplaces that don’t resource their teams adequately, that have managers that are toxic, where there’s bullying and harassment going on? People start getting sick and the response of the organisation is, ‘Well, you should do yoga’,” McEwan said.
“Why should the person do yoga?
“Sack the bad managers. If you want to see what’s underneath the Great Resignation, that’s what’s beneath it.
“The pandemic has woken us up to the fact that, ‘It’s not my fault that I’m burnt out. I have some responsibility, sure, but how can I take time off if my first worry is that I’m going to come back to 3,000 emails?’”
If workers can’t take a break because they’re also worried about how it will impact their team and their clients, that’s a reflection on management.
Essentially, businesses have an obsession with getting more from less, McEwan believes.
He said the current state of exhaustion was a natural result, and it was time for workplaces to wake up.
Grant added that leaders could support exhausted workers simply by listening, rather than assuming they knew what would work.
“It seems so basic. Unfortunately though, it’s sometimes easier [for leaders] to go, ‘Well that’s what we’re going to decide for the workforce’,” she said.
“However, it can be very dangerous because you will be presuming, and you may not hit the mark. … So how about [leaders] actually engage?”
That’s not through a workplace survey, but through taking workers out for coffees and having chats, or doing working groups with different parts of the business.
But, at the end of the day, it comes down to simply taking a breather and being kind to each other, she adds.
“Employers really need to work out how they can support their people more effectively. From the burnout perspective … I think it’s really important for people to think about, ‘How do I actually recharge?’”