Absence makes the heart grow much more burnt out

Absence makes the heart grow much more burnt out

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Workplace absences have been, more so than in previous winters, top of mind for many more of us during the first couple of working weeks of 2022. This is understandable. Firstly, we, in the UK and many other countries, are in the middle of the biggest ever wave of Covid cases, underpinned by an incredibly transmissible’ Omicron variant. It is therefore much more likely, with new daily cases of the virus currently orbiting around the 200,000 mark in the UK, that we know someone who is absent from work because they have Covid, or they have come into contact with someone who has Covid. Either that, or that absent person is us. 

Secondly: high levels of absenteeism are borne out in the stats and are being talked about publicly by a cross-section of industry leaders, a significant number of whom are speaking out about the impact on their ability to function and provide critical, or expected, services. These figures and claims are fueling headlines. A quick scan of some of the most prominent media outlets shows where a not inconsiderable amount of reporting focus is: Bloomberg notes that UK firms are grappling with ‘Impossible Numbers of Covid Absences’the Financial Times writes about the use of potential contingency measures for worst case absence rates in specific sectorsThe Independent reports businesses scaling back operations or hours due to a lack of staff; and the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi has gone on air to muse about how cutting the current self isolation period might benefit absence rates. Meanwhile, the BBC’s coronavirus sub-topic page is littered with multiple stories on staff shortages. It’s topping lists of concerns, topping news page and toping our feeds too, with many of us posting on social media about the absence wave as well.

To put it simply, both absences and the attention they’re garnering, feel unprecedented in scale. That’s because, in both instances, they are. Multiple sectors are reporting that up to to ten per cent of their staff are currently hit by the latest Covid wave, with education, transport and healthcare at the top of that hit-by-absentia list. Unison, one of the UK’s largest trade unions, say absences due to Covid-19 are hitting circa one in ten staff across all NHS health trusts, with one trust recently having to deal with having 14% of its workforce off. Zahawi says in one school 40% of staff were off at one time.

As a result, local surgeries, and schools, are closing their doors and over 20 other hospital trusts have declared critical incidents, driven in part by these ‘crippling staff shortages’. In fact, one attention-grabbing incident involved the North East Ambulance Service asking heart attack and stroke patients to drive to hospital as healthcare providers dealt with the double blow of a Covid surge coupled with low staffing levels. Even the military has been called in to help with these ‘very, very difficult circumstances’. As reported by the BBC, Frances O’Hagan, Deputy Chair of the British Medical Association in Northern Ireland: “This is definitely the worst we’ve been at.”

Whilst the absences in the NHS will, of course, capture the most attention - it’s the largest employer in the UK and for most, forms a central part of the idea of what it means to exist in British society, with many of us believing that we must do ‘everything we can’ to maintain it’; not to forget that a diminished service, however temporary, will cause stress and worry to those who either need to access it, or know someone that does - for many of us, it is not the only prominent and critical industry being hit by absences that impacts how we manage our day-to-day lives as well as how we access services many of us have come to expect being delivered in a certain way.

Almost one in 10 rail workers are off according to The Rail Delivery Group, the rail membership body, with one franchise operator saying the conditions are ‘worsening each day’; with many of us feeling the sharp end of last-minute service cancellations or changes. Additionally, the Fire Brigades Union has claimed that staffing levels are under pressure in specific areas - with it very easy to imagine the catastrophic outcome a reduced service here might cause. Even before Christmas, as Omicron began to impact workers, warehouse operators said absences were bad enough to create logistical challenges, with the Financial Times reporting that Royal Mail’s worker absences were double 2018 levels. CEOs of pub groups and heads of retail businesses also bemoan high levels of absences - which in some cases were reported to hit 50% of the workforce.

The burnout issue

And if these stats or claims haven’t reached you yet, then a similar version of the same story might have done. Be it from your own experience, those of friends or family, or colleagues, or even strangers you follow online. It could be even be via local reporting or from industry-specific news - which often focuses on the lived experience of individuals alongside statistical toplines (here also) rather than just the latter - and most likely follows this kind of refrain: ‘Absences are creating unmanageable workloads. Myself, and/or my colleagues are burnt out. I just don’t know how I’m managing right now. I don’t know how I can continue doing this.’

In fact, this was the case for individuals who were kind enough to speak to worketc about the impact that absences were having on their wellbeing, the wellbeing of their colleagues, and their ability to do job or even want to do it. One Head of Department, who currently works in an English secondary school, explained that absences - just before Christmas as well as right now - were causing burnout issues for themself, as well as sparking resignations. “Near the end of last term, I was a zombie and on autopilot. It’s definitely affecting mental health as I had three staff members in my department that reached a point of burnout [that was so bad] that they no longer want to be teachers next year. It’s relentless [the amount of work] and we’re taking on the responsibilities that others would due to issues of attendance, due to Covid.”

Another teacher, who works in a separate secondary school, added: “We’re just about managing to cover classes but as soon as we lose one or two teachers we will be in big trouble. There were some teachers who seemed to work themselves into the ground, one had taken on three different positions and was working insane days. We had to send home all of Year Seven for a week due to staff shortages and I think it's likely we'll have to do that again soon. [The] general state of morale among teaching and support staff is very low.”

Similar stories are coming out of the healthcare sector, too. 

A helicopter view of the same picture looks the same: worketc has comments from one union worker calling the absence-impacted workscape of the industry they support “a very sad picture”. This conclusion seems inarguable: with sickness or isolation and associated absence rates looking set to beat previous totals - Office for National Statistics show that UK total workforce absences sat at 1.8% in 2020 and 2.0% in 2018 - it reinforces the view that the context, from which the comments above are lived experience of, is not one which is conducive to underpinning a good work environment or good individual wellbeing. 

Structural burnout

Yet the current tales of burnout and exhausation, as a result of this latest Covid wave, aren’t entirely novel - at least for certain industries. For example, the Royal College of Nursing, who conducted a 2021 survey of almost 10,000 of its members, found that even before this absence peak over half of staff were planning to leave the profession, with exhaustion near the top of the list for this. A separate 2021 survey of teachers in Scotland found that over half thought their wellbeing at work was very poor, with comments in the survey stating that many felt  "at burnout" and "disillusioned" while one said it felt as though they were "on a constant treadmill".

Another 2021 survey, from the National Education Union, finds that one in three teachers plan to quit the industry within five years, largely driven by increased workloads. It therefore seems that the current wave of absences is merely reinforcing and quickening a staffing problem already in motion. “The long-term impact of the current [Covid] situation could force more resignations,” another teacher told worketc, “and create a self-perpetuating cycle where people leave, which creates more workload [for those that stay] which means more people leave, which creates even more workload. I can definitely see it spiralling into chaos.”

This grim diagnostic doesn’t get any better when one looks at the retention and recruitment stats for teaching or healthcare. Recent Education Policy Institute stats show that over 15% of teachers quit after the first year and a greater percentage are planning to quit now compared to numbers from before the pandemic started. Recruitment in this area is also falling whilst in nursing there is a similar issue. Much noise has been made about the impact of Brexit on nursing staffing levels with many headlines talking about the spiralling NHS staffing crisis. As one MP states: the service is over 90,000 staff members short

This worry about current or future staffing levels in education and nursing mirrors, though perhaps for different reasons, some trends that have been seen across the UK employment landscape in the last decade or so. Since the 2008 financial crash stats show that job creation has been fairly pedestrian - i.e. slow building back up of workforce after initial unemployment rise. Some think this forms part of a significant 2010s inclination within workforce management best described as ‘lean and mean’ - “because of the financial recession we reduced labourforce dramatically and rather than being comfortable we were now ‘lean and mean’ in terms of workforce,” Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology at The University of Manchester tells worketc - with businesses not always investing in employee numbers which creates a work structure which doesn’t allow for adequate time off or easy-to-manage workloads. All in all it paints a picture where absence, before Omicron hit, was arguably already built into the system, via an inadequate number of individuals employed to make working conditions comfortable for the incumbent workforce or able to tolerate moments of peak strain, such as this current Covid wave. (And, yes, of course that makes individual instances of burnout more likely.)

Curatives to the crisis 

So, what’s the answer to the current predicament: where present absence levels are rocking many industries and individuals and, as very clearly shown by the examples of healthcare and education but also elsewhere, exacerbating existing problems with workforce numbers and retention, which in turn can cause burnout and hit wellbeing. In the short term, there is a lot of noise around reducing the number of days those impacted by Covid will have to isolate - worketc will likely cover the impact of changes to isolation on work and the worker if they come to be in the future but for now it’s merely a potential and it would be a digression from the current discussion on burnout - but that doesn’t solve the big picture issue and there are other immediate options available to employers and employees that don’t require Governmental intervention.

First off, a worker could quit. Many already are. The so called ‘Great Resignation’ - the shorthand name given to the phenomena of great swathes of workers leaving for pastures new or, well, nothing - is at a stage where, according to late-2021 Randstad UK stats, a quarter of employees are thinking of jumping ship in the next few months. However - it should be noted worketc is a fan of individuals quitting jobs to improve their chances at getting better wellbeing and self-actualisation; read this excellent blogpost from The Great British Bake Off contestant, author and cook, Ruby Tandoh on the nature of quitting - that won’t solve the wellbeing issues of those who don’t do this (for many its not an easy or apparent option for a variety of reasons: feelings towards the profession, financial security and responsibility and/or identity/purpose gained from the work) or the ability of a business or sector to be able to provide the service which they’ve come to be expected to provide. (Another form of quitting, if we momentarily stretch the definition of the word, could be to strike (a kind of temporary quitting of work); many already have during the pandemic, with workers at Amazon, Instacart, Target, Walmart, and Whole Foods in the US striking in the early days of the pandemic over a perceived lack of safety precautions and safety pay. Yet, if this approach was taken now it would create even more acute (or dangerous) issues in specific sectors, especially healthcare and education, and isn’t being widely talked about at this moment, though who knows what might happen further down the line).

Alternate immediate fixes that are talked about involve better health and wellbeing management of employees - as well as better provision of these services from employers. University of Manchester’s Professor Cooper explains to worketc that one fix could be about employers being stricter on mask usage at work - already in place for many workplaces, education and healthcare settings especially - to prevent the virus spreading, the follow on thinking being there could likely be less absences as a result (and then less acute cases of overwhelm and burnout amongst staff). He also recommends that workers and employers engage in better dialogue to see what is causing employees to be stressed, in order to understand if these factors can be mitigated. “We’ve got to make sure people are able to talk about what they’re experiencing and feeling at the moment to make sure we know how well people are coping or not coping and get better at helping the ones who are having difficulties and finding ways round that,” he says.

Part of this dialogue could include getting a better understanding of what is driving worker burnout - What is that absences cause? Where is work stacking up? - a term thrown around a lot more since the World Health Organisation reclassified the syndrome as being an occupational phenomenon in 2019. Speaking to worketc, Becca Powers, a Fortune 500 technology executive, coach and author, says it's incumbent on employers and bosses to figure out where the burnout is coming from. “Burnout is an emotional depletion caused when too much recurring time is spent in what I call the ‘overs’ ( overstressed, overworked, overextended, overcommitted, overwhelmed) and ‘unders’ (undervalued, underappreciated, underpaid, underestimated, underutilised),” she explains, adding that employers must work to alleviate these and begin to make the appropriate changes to relieve stress to staff.

Part of the follow on from this, in Cooper’s view, could be better provision, by employers and for employees, of access to counselling or employee assistance programmes. Similarly, Gethin Nadin, an award-winning psychologist, author and Director of Employee Wellbeing at Benefex, an HR technology and service provider, believes that acute fixes employers or sector bosses could look at making life easier for those who have to unavoidably pick up more work due to absences of colleagues. He recommends that employers consider delivering better financial help - be it increased remuneration, financial education or childcare provision. “ [An employer might think] I might not be able to ease some stressors [at work] but I might be able to ease others [in their life],” he explains.

Structural changes to work and work expectations

Outside of the call, from both Cooper and Nadin, for employers to get better at understanding and alleviating pressure points for employees - both inside and outside of work - in this current moment of peak absence there is also a push for employers to consider structural, longer-term fixes to burnout-inducing work conditions. Cooper recommends considering turning the dial down on productivity in some areas of work life. “We have to look at strategy and involve direct reports into that and listen if they say they have to put things on the back burner…that's the way we have to go now,” he explains. It’s a noble idea, and some employers are clearly already doing this, but this might be something that either can’t clearly happen without damaging the service, as in education or healthcare, or isn’t likely to (unless there is a collective will to action here). In fact, many will have experienced, at a previous moment of peak absence during the pandemic, the time of furlough, picking up the work of colleagues and doing multiple jobs at once, with the will to productivity not really dropping off. “Those who weren’t furloughed had to deal with a lot more stress and work and burnout,” Nadin explains.

Another way out could be around hiring more employees. “The most obvious thing for employers to do is to create more of a workforce if you have resources and funds to be able to do so; to increase, however temporary, the number of people coming to work for you,” explains Nadin, although he does note with current UK vacancy numbers outstripping those who want to fill them, this could be difficult (at least right now). For many employers and workers, this also won’t solve immediate absence issues - especially in specialised fields such as medicine, where training takes years (though there was early pandemic evidence of retirees stepping back into the profession) - but could help mitigate structure-induced issues around worker burnout, wellbeing and retention going forward. However, to get this right, employers, or the government body in charge of a sector, would have to look at earnestly understanding, and then fixing, what is unappealing about work in their industry or organisation, looking properly at what is driving exhaustion, as well as getting a hold on the factors that create the will to quit a specific type of work. If they get this right, it could help solve the burnout issue, the experience of work for the individual in that sector, and the hiring and retention issue in one. 

Perhaps this is where a structural fix to the problem lies: getting away from the idea that the makeup and size of workforce, the recruitment patterns that feed it, and experience of work as it is, are things that can’t be changed. One way forward for the long term, to help mitigate the negatives effect of future crises - and global business leaders are serious about the fact that there will be future macro-disruptions - could be to reimagine working structures. This is something that Derek Irvine, SVP Strategy & Consulting at Workhuman, a software provider, believes can work. “To help fight burnout, organisations should focus less on the number of hours worked and more on whether work is getting done and the quality of the output. As well, since no two employees have the same responsibilities and needs, organisations must take a flexible approach to help employees maintain their health, wellbeing and productivity. Offer real flexibility to employees by allowing them to have a say in their work schedule.” (In the worketc view, whilst appealing and useful for many businesses, delivering true flexibility is an unlikely solve for certain sectors - such as education and healthcare - unless service provision and aspects of the job are radically reimagined).

Or, as Nadin explained earlier in this post, it could simply be about adding more people to the workforce. This, as Cooper argues, needn’t be about attracting and growing a permanent, full-time workforce but could instead be about creating a contingent workforce, ready to supplement staff at peak times or crises, such as the one many of us are experiencing right now. “There's a lot of people who are leaving their role as part of great resignation,” he says, “we have to look at people taking on roles with us and having a backup workforce, even if it's only part time. What about young university leavers who are having trouble getting jobs? What about people fed up with their sector? How can we use those as a backup workforce?

“[This could] help reduce load on existing people and these problems will be around for a while. It might not be this variant, it might be another variant, it might be Brexit. Therefore having a backup recruitment strategy and thinking clearly about what group of people can get a job done to reduce overload on existing staff. There’s only so much current staff can do.”

The way forward

Indeed, there is only so much current staff can do. From the survey data worketc has looked at, as well as comments compiled from those currently working in industries, or supporting those working in those industries, affected by huge numbers of absences, it’s clear that many are struggling. From the conversations worketc has had, this seems to be precipitating further burnout for individuals and is definitely impacting the ability to provide services to users and customers, as staff go off sick (be it with Covid or burnout) or leave entirely. And it appears that this crisis isn’t merely the result of a peak wave of Covid - although it is definitely exacerbated by it - but one borne out of structures of understaffing and a failure to either recruit or retain (or both) adequate numbers of workers, at least in specific sectors. As one teacher tells worketc: “We have massive staffing issues down to problems with recruitment,” adding that it is Covid-sparked absences that could tip the issue into becoming a crisis at their school.

And whilst there are some potential short term mitigations available for this current absence-come-burnout crisis - for workers, quit, or, if you have the reserves, fight for your voice to be heard, to be managed better, to get better provisions from your organisations; for employers, take a look at how you understand where the pressures are for staff and where you might release pressure to be productive, or get better at providing holistic services and managing your staff (none of these alone will wholly solve bigger issues, though) - it appears that solutions to burnout and retention, after this wave subsides, might require a will to change structures. For some sectors (especially those involved in public service provision) that will be difficult - and involve serious questions about funding, policy, and practice; and even if this does occur, it won’t be a quick change - but for private sector employers, it might be to take what is happening now as a warning to move away from historic models of employment and look seriously at new workforce structures and staffing levels, understanding how these things impact the worker (and their ability to work(and, therefore, your ability to attract top talent and turn a profit)). Tales from work environments hollowed out - either temporarily by Omicron absences and/or in more structural ways - by absences, might serve as this spark to look at alternate solutions, so workers don’t feel as much of a squeeze on their wellbeing and work going forward.


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