How Covid-19 accelerated pre-existing Trends in the Workplace
21.05.2024

How Covid-19 accelerated pre-existing Trends in the Workplace

Travel, urbanisation, scientific experiments, even terrorism mean that it will not be the last test of foresight, preparation, adaptability and resilience for governments, institutions, and companies. Covid-19 was a dislocator of beliefs and behaviours. It had catastrophic effects on well-being that still reverberate for many people today, well beyond the domain of work. It was also an accelerator of pre-existing evolution.

Arguably we are now where we were always going to be one day, just faster and without the ease and comfort of gradual adaptation. Leitz’s 2023 research commissioned from GKF in december 2023, comprising a 600-person sample of german desk workers showed 18% now work solely from home, whereas 42% only work in the office .

EconPol, a German policy advisory organisation, estimate that a third of global workers now operate either fully remotely or as hybrid workers. (EconPol Policy Brief 53, 2023).

Burn-out at work accentuated by Covid

At an extreme, the effects can be fatal. There is a word for this in Japanese, ‘Karoshi’ or death by overwork.

The WHO describes burn-out as ‘A syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,’ characterized by three dimensions:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism towards it
  • Reduced professional efficacy McKinsey’s 2022 thinkpiece, ‘Addressing Employee Burnout ‘ described the long-term negative effect of the pandemic on employee well-being, in particular mental health, with levels of claimed burn-out at around 25% of global employees.

Gallup’s 2023 ‘State of the Global Workplace’ identified a correlation of stress with negative worker engagement. 44% of the total world-wide sample claimed to be stressed – a ten year high. However, engaged workers had lower scores of stress – 30% incidence, compared with 41% and 56% for the unengaged and the actively disengaged.

How people are re-evaluating the world of work

There has been widespread and lasting re-evaluation about what place work should occupy in peoples’ lives and where it should happen.

Many people were initially reluctant to reengage with the system – many still are. The media has been awash with ‘greats’ – the ‘great resignation’ in 2021 saw more American workers leave their jobs than at any time in the previous 20 years and over 40% considered changing employer. (Microsoft Work Trends 2021).

Employee Expetations and Well-Being in a changing landscape of work

While the position stabilised in 2023, all indicators are that the relationship between workers and the jobs they do and also with their employers is extremely fragile. For many this will be further exacerbated by the often-enforced return to offices that will be explored later.

Reflecting on their working lives, people have focused on causes, purpose and social issues in the workplace, a desire for greater fulfilment and concerns for well-being – especially the risks and consequences of burn-out.

Like survivors of near-death experiences, individuals have taken stock of how they spend the major part of their waking hours and in many cases resolved to change. A general shift in employee expectations led to more people deciding to completely control their own destinies.

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Commitment to work & "quiet quitting"

In terms of commitment to work, Gallup’s ‘State of the Global Workplace: 2023 Report’ found that only a quarter of global employees are ‘Engaged’, conversely, nearly 60% are ‘Quiet Quitters’, classified as, ‘Filling a seat and watching the clock,’ putting in the minimum effort required, and disconnected from their employer.

While the apparently modest global ‘engaged’ figure of 23% is a ten-year high in the survey, only 13% of the European sample qualified as ‘engaged’ – the lowest of any global region. Ironically, while they are minimally productive, the disengaged ‘Quiet Quitters’ are more likely to be stressed and burnt out than engaged colleagues because they feel lost and disconnected from their workplace.

Employees have come to realise that they have more leverage over their employers today than since the days of industrial unrest in the 1970s, resulting from a combination of factors.

Workforces have shrunk across Europe

With European employment rates at a record high at 74.6% and unemployment rates at a historic low at 6.2% skills shortages abound, with Deloitte’s claiming that this is the number 1 concern of CEO’s globally.3 Economists have been writing about skills shortages for years. Back in 2010, the World Economic Forum predicted that Western Europe needed to add 45 million skilled workers by 2030, commenting ‘the talent crisis demands bold responses; skills for high-demand jobs in 2020 must be developed now’.

By 2030, we may be looking at a different list, with ai skills at the top.