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Navigating COVID-19’s Lessons on Burnout

Feeling burned out? You are not alone. When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered businesses and sequestered employees at home, wellbeing plummeted to lows not seen since the Great Recession of 2008.1 Only 46.5% of Americans described their lives as “thriving” in April 2020, a 15% decline from before the pandemic. By December, these rates had rebounded slightly to just 48%.1 Clearly, the stress and worry of 2020 continued to take its toll.

But rather than becoming distracted and listless, workers remained highly engaged at work, with employee engagement rates hitting record highs in 2020 and ending the year 1% higher on average than 2019.1 Gallup has studied the relationship between wellbeing and engagement since 2009 and described COVID workplace data trends “truly like nothing Gallup has ever seen.”1 Traditionally, its research suggests wellbeing and work engagement have a reciprocal, additive effect on one another. When rates for one go up or down, the other tends to follow in lockstep. An employee who feels needed and valued tends to be more engaged with work and experiences a greater sense of wellbeing. In this way, engagement and wellbeing work together to stave off burnout.

In 2020, however, engagement and wellbeing split from their usual partnership. Wellbeing certainly suffered, but workers remained highly engaged. Employees pitched in and pivoted because they were “united under a shared sense of purpose,” according to Gallup’s 2020 study.1 As many businesses closed for good, many individuals were just grateful to have jobs, even as their sense of wellbeing was threatened. They showed incredible resilience, but high levels of resilience can only be maintained for so long before it gives way to burnout. COVID-19, it seemed, had created a unique kind of burnout, one that has not abated. Two-thirds of workers say burnout has increased due to the pandemic, according to a February 2021 survey conducted by Indeed, an online job search site.2

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