- Fortune 500 executives increased mental-health benefits during the pandemic.
- Burnout experts say their new benefits are a step in the right direction.
- But workers say companies need to address workplace cultures to really stop burnout.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
From its consultants and investment bankers to diversity executives and lawyers, many in America’s workforce are running on empty.
In a recent Insider survey of 1,000 workers, over 60% of respondents said they were experiencing burnout. The data supported separate findings. Employees on the lower rungs of the corporate ladder reported higher rates of burnout than their senior colleagues.
Executives at major retailers, banks, food-service companies, and professional-service firms told Insider they promised to permanently keep many of the benefits they added during the pandemic and continue educating employees about mental-health services. But business experts who study burnout, as well as exhausted workers, say it’s not enough.
“Being generous, I’d give corporate leaders a C grade,” Kelley Bonner, a consultant who helps Fortune 500 companies address burnout, said.
-free Fridays and more PTO is great,” she said. “However, if you don’t have a strategy for how you’re going to make your workplace psychologically safe, a space for innovation absent of toxic behaviors, then you’re never going to get it.”
It’s not that executives don’t care. Nearly 80% of employers surveyed in a recent McKinsey report said they were concerned about employee mental health, and about 66% reported concern about substance-use disorder. But for the lower-level workers who feel burnout most intensely, it’s that C-suite executives aren’t thinking holistically — they’re troubleshooting when what’s needed is a full reset.
The employees Insider spoke with said that their workloads and goals were too ambitious to afford taking vacation, that their managers set an unhealthy example by working long hours, that they felt disengaged because their colleagues talked to them disrespectfully, and that mental health was seen as a nice-to-have rather than a business imperative.
As the corporate world returns to pre-pandemic life, both workers and management consultants say now is the time for senior leaders to redefine work in America — before worker productivity drops and more people take leaves of absence, quit, or worse.
Executives make promising first steps
To be sure, executives have been struggling with burnout, too. And they’ve been rolling out new benefits and policies to help.
Mike Fenlon, PwC’s chief people officer, spent many weeks during the pandemic working late nights coordinating office closures, making decisions about business travel, and adding benefits policies. He said back-to-back Zoom meetings at his desk brought on a sense of mental fatigue. On top of that, he was busy helping his three children manage their homework schedules.
“I’ve appreciated being able to work from home, but at the same time, it’s house arrest,” Fenlon said. “At the beginning of the pandemic, it really was around-the-clock work.”
With Fenlon’s help, PwC doubled the amount of money allotted for employees to pay for backup care to $2,000. It also began offering discounts for childcare services, and, like Citi, rolled out “Zoom-free” workdays.
Other executives took similar measures after seeing their colleagues struggling with work-life balance.
IBM introduced four additional weeks of flexible paid emergency leave that could be used in increments of hours or days, or in a single monthlong stretch, and added emergency backup eldercare and childcare options. Hershey expanded its telemedicine services to include mental-health sessions and increased its Employee Assistance Program (EAP) support from five visits to 10 visits a year. Chipotle expanded in-person, phone, or virtual mental-health therapy to all of its employees through its EAP program.
The financial giant Ally conducted daily wellness surveys to see how employees were doing and made adjustments to its benefits based on the findings. Wells Fargo executives emphasized the availability of the company’s EAP program that offers 24/7 mental-health support for employees and their household family members. HP educated human-resources managers about the signs of mental-health challenges.
Chris Scalia, Hershey’s chief human-resources officer, talked about his journey dealing with anxiety during the pandemic in a company-wide virtual meeting.
“It hit a chord,” he said. “For a senior leader to openly share personal, private challenges and the importance of my family, colleagues, and seeking help — it opened a new level of dialogue and vulnerability across Hershey.”
The breaking point
Unfortunately, those experiences haven’t necessarily been trickling down to the tens or hundreds of thousands of employees at large companies. For many of them, burnout remains an isolating, fearful experience. All the employees Insider talked to spoke on the condition anonymity for fear of retaliation, disciplinary action, or termination. Their identities are known to Insider.
A 27-year-old woman at a top national media company hasn’t told her boss that she’s burned out because she doesn’t want to appear weak to her managers, she said. She often works 12-hour days writing scripts and editing videos.
“I am completely exhausted, no matter how much sleep I get,” she said.
The very idea of work brings her to tears, she added. Recently, after she received assignments on top of an unrelenting long list of must-do tasks, she said she felt physically and mentally depleted.
“I just pulled out my kitchen chair, sighed, and began to sob. And I mean sob,” the media employee said. “I don’t think many leaders are talking about or thinking about mental health.”
She is one of the many American workers who say they are struggling with burnout. And she, like other workers, doesn’t want to let her bosses down, so she works around-the-clock, she said.
In Insider’s survey, one-third of respondents reported a lack of boundaries between their work and personal life.
I am completely exhausted, no matter how much sleep I get.
A 30-year-old employee at a staffing firm in New York has been exceptionally busy over the past year. Her job has been to help staff medical professionals to treat the surge of COVID-19 patients. She’s had only one day off a week. Often, she has no days off, she said.
“Burnout is absolutely a problem,” she added.
The staffing-firm employee is about to give her two weeks’ notice at her job because she doesn’t think her work-life balance is sustainable, she said. She added that she felt torn between working late to the evening every night and passing off her work to other coworkers who are equally overworked.
“I want to have a family, and I just don’t see myself being able to do that with this job,” she said.
At certain companies, talking to a manager about feeling overworked is met with judgement.
Amy, who didn’t want her last name published out of concern that her former employer wouldn’t give her a reference for job opportunities, worked in billing for a major New York City hospital until January. The 30-year-old said she quit because she was so drained.
According to Amy, the hospital implemented a schedule during the pandemic that allowed workers to work from home 50% of the time and in the office 50% of the time. But if upper management felt you weren’t productive enough, your work-from-home privileges were revoked, she said.
“The breaking point for me was when they wouldn’t give us time to go to doctor’s appointments. And if they did, they demanded notes,” she said. “It was too much.”
A chance to redefine work in America
When it comes to fighting burnout, benefits alone won’t get companies very far, Bonner, the consultant, said. She added that firms needed to spend less time and money on the next new perk and instead spend more time on the employee experience, which includes rethinking people’s workloads and schedules and addressing how employees feel about the workplace as a whole.
“Before you even get people to buy in to do the little things that improve your work culture, you have to really tackle those large elephants in the room,” Bonner said. “Is there discrimination and diversity issues in that company? Do employees know how to communicate with each other? Or is there a toxic work environment of microaggressions and uncivil behavior?”
Leaders, she added, should not only keep the benefits they added during the pandemic but also need to increase the number of conversations they’re having with the company’s head of diversity. “If certain workers feel invisible, they’re going to remain burned out,” Bonner said.
Corporate executives also need to chip away at harmful workplace norms by leading by example, said Vanessa Bohns, a Cornell University professor and the author of “You Have More Influence Than You Think.”
“If the boss responds to work emails at 10 p.m. on a Saturday or never takes a vacation,” she said, “all the PTO benefits in the world won’t make employees feel comfortable taking advantage of them.”
Workers seem to agree. According to the 27-year-old media-company employee, additional time off is necessary but not sufficient.
“They’ll say ‘don’t forget to take your PTO’ in an email, and I know I can call a number for therapy,” she said. “But some workers don’t feel they can realistically take PTO, or they work in toxic workplace environments.”
She said C-suite leaders needed to have more conversations with rank-and-file employees — sometimes “three or four levels beneath them” — to see how they’re feeling or gather information through surveys.
“In order to get results you’ve never had, you need to do things you’ve never done before,” she said.
And above all else, multiple workers said, executives need to encourage midlevel supervisors to take more responsibility when it comes to preventing burnout.
“Otherwise,” she said, “this cycle will just continue.”