State Of The Workplace in 2023: ‘Employee Stress Is At An All-Time High’

Jess Stuart explains the biggest challenges we’re facing in the workplace right now – and why and how employers need to tackle these right away

After 15 years in senior-leadership roles in the corporate world, Jess Stuart quit the rat race – and she has since become an executive and leadership consultant, the author of six books, a keynote speaker, and a workshop facilitator. She often works with female and non-binary leaders.

Jess just wrote and released her ‘2023 State of the Workplace Report’. Thank you, Jess! Because we could do with a good look at what’s going on, and whether others are experiencing similar things to us.

“Quite simply put, everything has seemed harder of late due to the prolonged nature of the temporary fixes associated with the pandemic”

In the report, Jess pulls together research from across the globe, and draws on her own expertise from her work in New Zealand. “As we return to the office post-summer break and hold our breath for what’s to unfold in 2023, here’s a look at where we’re at,” Jess writes. Where are we at?

“The last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Jess writes, “have taken a significant toll on the physical and mental health of workforces around the world.” Yep, they sure have.

“After a few years of disruption,” she continues, “2023 seems like a chance to stabilise and rebuild. Yet we’re still struggling to strike the balance with hybrid working, our teams are less engaged, burnout is on the rise and the economic impacts of the last few years are causing concern.” What can be done?

Jess notes the “re-occuring themes” that emerged from her work within businesses and with leaders over the last year. “Mostly notably,” she writes, “we’re struggling with constant change and uncertainty, long Covid and health problems, grief (missed family events, overseas isolation etc), guilt, resentment, burnout, hybrid-working challenges, connection, collaboration, motivation, fear, division (over mandates), [emotion] overwhelm, disruption.”

“Quite simply put, everything has seemed harder of late due to the prolonged nature of the temporary fixes associated with the pandemic and of course the ongoing uncertainty and concerns that still exist long after lockdowns have ended. We’ve also been distracted from BAU [business as usual] and haven’t achieved what we set out to leaving us feeling like we’re behind and lacking a sense of achievement.”

How Are Employees Feeling? Spoiler: Not Good.

Gallup is a global analytics and leadership-advice firm – and its latest State of the Global Workplace Report “represents the collective voice of the global employee”.

In this edition,” the report outlines, “the pandemic and its aftershock continued to disrupt the workplace. These insights can equip leaders – organisationally and globally – to make purposeful decisions based on how employees are truly feeling… Our findings leave much room for leaders to ask, ‘How am I creating a thriving workplace for my employees today?’”

From the report, Jess lists these key points:

•Global engagement and wellbeing trends are stable but low
•Employee stress is at an all-time high
•The global economy has lost trillions to low engagement
•Before the pandemic engagement and wellbeing were rising globally for nearly a decade – but now, they’re stagnant

Drawing from the report, Jess relays that “with only 21% of employees engaged at work and 33% of employees thriving in their overall wellbeing, most would say that they don’t find their work meaningful, don’t think their lives are going well or don’t feel hopeful about their future.” Whoa.

Jess also refers to a Gallup survey that shows workers prioritise their happiness and wellbeing more than they did pre-pandemic.

“In the wake of COVID-19,” Jess writes, “employees across Asia Pacific are rethinking their lives, and work is topping the list. According to PWC’s Global Workforce Hopes & Fears Survey 2022 of nearly 18,000 workers across Asia Pacific, the Great Resignation is set to continue. Talent is on the move to a degree not seen before. Employees say they want more meaningful work, a better deal around fair pay, and to be able to bring their authentic selves to work. But are their leaders listening?” She notes the following:

•Only 57% of employees in Asia Pacific are satisfied with their job
•One-third plan to ask for a raise in the next 12 months and one-third plan to ask for a promotion
•One in five intend to switch to a new employer

“These results should be a wakeup call for companies across the region, many of whom have already been grappling with a skill and talent shortage for years,” Jess writes.

The Biggest Challenges Workplaces Are Facing

Jess has learned plenty on the ground.“At a recent webinar that I ran with a large group of HR professionals, we shared the top challenges from multiple New Zealand-based organisations and there were some reoccurring themes:

•Retention of talent – head-hunting
•Talent shortage
•Employee burnout
•Engagement post-Covid
•Change fatigue yet certain of more change
•Covid hangover impacting people’s wellbeing and resilience
•Budget cuts
•Leadership capability in this new era
•Time to lead and do more value-add impactful work over the noise and distractions
•Too many meetings, not enough thinking time or space
•Empathy burnout post-pandemic (we may feel like we’ve used up our empathy, and may also feel guilty about that)

It’s Time For Employers To Step Up

“Supporting worker well-being has become a priority for many companies,” Jess says. But more needs to be done.

Something that businesses must tackle head on is hybrid working. “We know that hybrid working is here to stay,” Jess writes, “but we also know it’s not working for everyone. Whilst some have delighted in the new-found flexibility and lack of commute, organisations are now starting to observe the negative effects of working from home on company culture, connection and engagement.”

“In 2023,” Jess writes, “employers will need to reassess current hybrid-working arrangements in order to rebuild culture, improve mental health and stem the tide of valuable employees ‘quietly quitting’.”

“It’s clear that leaders will need to adapt and evolve – at speed – to meet rising employee expectations for fair pay, meaningful work, authenticity and trust in a hybrid world,” Jess writes. “We expect new leaders with new skill-sets and mindsets to emerge. We also expect to see leaders challenge the basic ideas that have guided organisations for decades, such as traditional hierarchical structures and command-and-control approaches. Organisations that thrive in the future will select and nurture these leaders and invest in leadership training and development.”

She lists key challenges:
•Nurturing emerging leaders to ensure talent pipeline
•[Addressing] Wellbeing of staff and addressing burnout
•Improving DEI [Diversity, Equity & Inclusion]
•Supporting leaders through this transition
•Lifting engagement

Jess, who runs the leadership programme LeaderZEN, has just launched 90-day programme ‘Lead with Confidence’, designed for women and people from minority groups stepping into leadership roles – or who are in the first five years of a leadership role.

What Women Are Looking For In The Workplace

As Jess writes, “women leaders are switching jobs at the highest rates we’ve ever seen”. She quotes the McKinsey ‘Women in the Workplace Report’ as to why: “Women leaders are just as ambitious as men, but at many companies, they face headwinds that signal it will be harder to advance. They’re more likely to experience belittling microaggressions, such as having their judgment questioned or being mistaken for someone more junior.”

“They’re doing more to support employee well-being and foster inclusion, but this critical work is spreading them thin and going mostly unrewarded. It’s also increasingly important to women leaders that they work for companies that prioritise diversity, equity, and inclusion. If companies don’t take action, they risk losing not only their current women leaders but also the next generation of women leaders.”

Jess runs a “Men As Allies” program for men to attend. “In recent years,” she writes, “an increased understanding of the powerful impact of male allies at work and at home has led many organisations to recognise men as allies as a critical component of their diversity and inclusion efforts.”

Jess also runs a workshop, and a wider programme (with tiers for different businesses), that are both called Burnout to Brilliance. (Currently running for free, due to the ongoing national emergency, until Monday night).

“We use the term burnout to describe physical, mental and emotional exhaustion,” Jess writes. “Research out of AUT suggests 11 percent of New Zealand workers might be experiencing burnout: physical or mental problems due to stress or overwork.” Burnout is more common among women.

“We know that burnout has increased, engagement has decreased, and our employees are struggling with a post-covid hangover the summer break won’t have fixed. A collective fatigue that leaves us resistant to change despite the fact that more change is inevitable as organisations revaluate going forward.”

Jess is running a free lunchtime webinar (register online) at 12.30pm on 21 February to talk about the report and how to handle the challenges we face.

Jess is hopeful about the future. “I do believe we’ll adjust and evolve in the face of these challenges in the same way leaders and businesses of the past had to respond and adapt to other global events and crises.” She thinks we’ll create a new normal.

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