Employees are 'burnt out' as they work into the night, skip leave – report

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The latest Remchannel survey shows that 88% of employers say their staff are working longer hours and 32% expect staff to answer emails outside of work hours.
The latest Remchannel survey shows that 88% of employers say their staff are working longer hours and 32% expect staff to answer emails outside of work hours.
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  • The latest Remchannel wellness and performance survey shows that 88% of employers say their staff are working longer hours.
  • Some 32% of respondents say their employees have to answer emails outside of work hours.
  • And because many employees are banking their leave, they are burnt out and just getting by.

People are working longer hours across industries - and they aren't taking enough leave. Even sick leave requests are noticeably down. And those who do take leave want to come across as "superheroes" by replying to emails while on their break.

"At the same time, productivity is up, and this we believe is masking the reality of a burnout time bomb," said René Richter, MD of Remchannel.

Remchannel - which is Old Mutual Corporate's reward management platform - presented the results of its latest wellness and performance survey on Thursday.

Some 88% of companies who responded to the survey said their staff was working longer hours now than ever. And 32% said that their employees are expected to answer emails outside of traditional working hours.

Leave days are building up

Not only are many people working past the traditional home time, but Remchannel also said companies' leave liabilities are building up too.

When Remchannel conducted research in the mining sector on this subject in 2013, it found that employers owed an estimated R8.5 billion of leave to their employees. Last year that had increased by R2.4 billion since 2013.

But the leave liability build-up was across the board in the past 19 months.

The travel bans and tighter lockdowns restricting trade in the hospitality sector prevented people from taking time off because most don't want to stay at home. They kept banking their leave for later when they could do more, said Remchannel.

But Glenn Simpson, client services manager at the professional body of CAs, ICAS, said this has to stop because most people are "dried out".

"If you're tired, take your leave. You don't have to go somewhere to have a break. You just need to change your structure on a day-to-day basis," he said.

Simpson encourages a "digital detox" when people are on leave.

But Vicky Tlhabanelo, HR executive at Royal Bafokeng, said staycation leave has also become very tricky since people work from home. It still feels like being at work.

"It's so tricky because where is home and where is the office? How do we differentiate this? It may be easier said than done," she said.

She said companies also need to review their leave policies because some people see exchanging their leave for cash as an incentive.

The burnout time bomb

Simpson described burnout as a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged stress. For most people, it occurs because they feel overwhelmed or unable to meet all the demands they are constantly facing. They are not just under constant stress anymore; they are "all dried out", devoid of motivation, and don't care anymore. They are just output machines.

Simpson said the only solution is to implement structures in one's life to prevent getting to that point. And that starts with setting boundaries in the hybrid working environment.

"Let's encourage our employees to step away, to take a break. And leaders, you need to do the same," he said.

Simpson said both companies and their employees need to set official rules on what a hybrid working model should look like.

Richter said when designing the official hybrid working model, companies need to get input from their staff so that they can understand some of the issues they've been grappling with since they started working from home.

Not sustainable

Richter said the consistent pressure to be plugged in all the time will eventually take a toll on companies' productivity. She said it will pose a "once-in-a-generation" challenge for business leaders.

"It's simply not sustainable," she said.

She referred to research published by Glassdoor UK on 19 October, which indicated that just this year alone, burnout syndrome has increased by 128% since April 2021.

"This clear lack of an endpoint - because we don't know what is going to happen next - is likely to result in a reduction in employee well-being and engagement over a period of time," she said.

Tlhabanelo said companies' productivity will be impacted one way or another. She said companies need to realise that high outputs and burnout go hand in hand.

"Studies are showing mental illness ... is escalating rapidly. This leads us to note that wellness of individuals may deteriorate well into the future," she said.

But there's some light at the end of the tunnel. Tlhabanelo said many companies have noted this and stepped up with wellness days, frequent check-ups on individuals, and more flexibility on when people start their workdays.

But Tlhabanelo warned that companies need to do more than just host wellness days. While they need to create support for their employees, they also need to give them space to take responsibility for their well-being. This starts with allowing people to completely switch off to adopt new lifestyles and new routines.

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