In countries where COVID-19 vaccines have become widely available, formerly paused activities like meeting friends, dining out, and going to amusement parks are finally allowed again.
For offices, this also raises the possibility of a return to normalcy as they ask their workforce to trade in their home offices, pajamas, and video conference calls for dress shirts, in-person meetings, and lunch in the cafeteria. With employees also having put much more time into work during the pandemic, does this mean similar long days are coming back to the office too?
To gain perspective towards how we should approach the return to work, I reached out to Kirk Carlsen, a former professional cyclist turned Director of Product Marketing at Oracle. As he observed the burnout and stress many workers experienced during pandemic lockdown, he was reminded of his own training regimen.
“At the height of my cycling career, I thought more was better”, said Carlsen, who had victories across several continents, and was a former national champion and United States National Team member. “Train this much more, train this much harder. My mentality was that if I pushed past my physical and mental limitations on a daily basis that I would follow a path of upward trajectory. But what I learned was that getting the most out of my body was much more complex than that. Once I crossed my physical and mental limitations, it quickly led to overtraining and burnout.”
Here are a few more thoughts on balance and burn out as we think about work life in this latest stage of the pandemic.
When the pandemic sent workers home, many corporate leaders and economists did not expect that 70% of the workforce would punch the clock on weekends and 45% would work more hours than they would before the pandemic. With the merging of family and home life, lockdowns dictating that people stay home with not much else to do, and the inability to unplug, productivity skyrocketed—at the expense of worker mental health. Our AI@Work study, released last Fall, showed that 78% of the global workforce found 2020 to be their most stressful year ever, causing everything from sleep deprivation to reduced happiness.
The increased level of stress should have brought more urgency towards taking a vacation, but with lockdowns and a fear of contracting of the virus, many cut down there too. A survey of American workers last summer revealed that 92% canceled, postponed, or didn’t book a vacation due to the pandemic, while 62% spent less on vacation overall—putting at risk many expiring vacation days and billions of more dollars to a struggling travel industry.
This doesn’t seem to be working.
There is a high level of hope that we will return to pre-pandemic ways as the world re-opens and vaccination rates increase. Already, passenger traffic at airports have eclipsed the numbers of last year and in the San Francisco Bay Area at least, the roads are noticeably more jammed. However, even as we try to replicate our old lifestyles—complete with the strenuous hard work we were used to—the lessons from the pandemic should present us with an alternative.
What adds further complexity to the mental health challenge at work is that there is no one-size fits all approach. With four generations across the workplace, it’s clear through further research that everyone requires different levels of attention, access to resources, and modalities of support. For many companies, this has meant evaluating and providing a variety of solutions for their workforce. These new approaches, a departure from an era where work and personal life stayed separate, parallel Carlsen’s approach to competition and how to better coach athletes.
“We have to look at leadership teams as if they are coaches”, Carlsen says. “For them to drive performance and get the most out of each individual employee, managers need to learn how to keep their staff mentally fresh and motivated. It becomes a lesson in periodization followed by structured recovery. It can’t always be push harder and work faster. No different than training on the bike. But it’s ultimately up to leadership to set the example. Know when and how hard to push and when to rest so that their employees can perform at their best, be more productive, and overall, be healthier individuals.”
Companies are beginning to listen as we move through the summer and towards a return to the office in the Fall. According to a survey by executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray, & Christmas, more than one in five companies are increasing the paid time they offer while in other cases, executives are getting more involved in the vacation ideas of their workforce. Added upon the mental health benefits that we reported upon last year, it shows a changing of traditional workplace beliefs—perhaps better preparing us not only for greater productivity—but also the competitions that fuel our success.
There are multiple takeaways to consider over the past 18 months of work and leaders would do well to heed them as their workforce head back to the office. From the exhaustion of working longer days to lessons from a champion cyclist, all can do more to consider how things can be different this time around and avoid repeating the lessons of 2020’s mental health challenges—including taking that well-deserved vacation.
Does mental health continue to challenge your workforce? Join the conversation and see how some of our customers are supporting their employees through the pandemic and how HR has played a role.
Albert Qian is the senior content marketing manager for the Oracle Cloud HCM Campaigns team and the editor-in-chief for this blog. He's passionate about telling the story of HR technology and how it can create better workforces.