Workforce suffering from ‘COVID-19 hangover’ as burnout risk remains

Friday 4 August 2023

While the rate of burnout experienced in the workforce has fallen since the height of the pandemic, new research shows it remains nearly three times higher than pre-COVID levels.

The ongoing wellbeing@work research, led by Massey Business School’s Professor Jarrod Haar, Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Mahuta, focuses on understanding the challenges of job burnout in Aotearoa New Zealand’s workforce.

For this research, job burnout has been considered using the following four dimensions: emotional exhaustion, mental distancing, cognitive impairment and emotional impairment. Professor Haar has been tracking the burnout rate since 2020 through over 1000 representative New Zealand employees, working off an estimated pre-COVID burnout level of eight per cent.

Current data from June 2023 shows one in five employees (22 per cent) fall within the high burnout risk category which indicates no real change since last year as the December 2022 rate sat at 22.9 per cent. This rate has dropped from November 2021, where the highest rate of burnout was recorded at 43 per cent, but remains higher than the 17.1 per cent rate recorded in May 2020 after the first lockdown.

While it looks like the burnout risk across the general workforce is beginning to abate after the heights seen in 2021, Professor Haar says the lack of significant drop is a worry.

“If this is the new normal, then we’d better watch out. This is massively problematic for businesses and their workers as evidence shows us burnt out employees are sick more often, more absent and less likely to perform their job. The data from June this year shows the burnout risk group are six times more likely to seriously consider quitting their job and six times more likely to engage in poor workplace behaviours such as having a reduced work ethic.”

Professor Haar’s research across industries has revealed not all professions are experiencing the same level of burnout.

The highest reported profession experiencing burnout in December 2022 was farmers and farm managers who sat at 71 per cent, followed by farm and forestry workers at 43 per cent, general clerical workers at 38 per cent and Chief Executive Officers at 30 per cent. Legal, social and welfare professionals were found to be within the average range at 23 per cent, with hospitality workers at 19 per cent and factory process workers at 10 per cent. Of the sample findings, machine and plant operators came in as being least likely to experience burnout risk at zero per cent.

The most recent data from June 2023 has revealed the risks of being in the high burnout group is higher for managers (27 per cent) than employees (20 per cent) but there’s no difference by sector (private, public or not-for profit) or gender.

There was no difference by region, although this was found to be influenced by the large number of regional categories. Examining the raw data indicates Southland had the worst burnout risk rate (39 per cent) and Tasman the best (10 per cent). There were no significant risk rate differences by ethnicity, single versus partner status or through working environment (full-time office, full-time home or hybrid working).

However, Professor Haar says some risks within a workplace environment are more critical than others.

“High levels of work loneliness are problematic as it can cause the risk of burnout to be five times more likely, while high work demands can cause a 10 times risk rate. For those experiencing workplace bullying on a frequent basis (monthly or more), they are 11.7 times more likely to be burnt out. Amongst ethnic minorities, those who experience more frequent discrimination in the workplace are 7.3 times more likely to be in the burnout risk category. Working for an organisation that is highly supportive helps – it can reduce risk by two. But in comparison to bullying, workload, discrimination and loneliness? The negatives weigh heavier.”

Professor Haar reports this year’s results are still unusually high and are likely to represent a ‘COVID-19 hangover.’

“While the burnout risk is down from the heady heights of 2021, it remains stubbornly high and shows the workforce in Aotearoa New Zealand has not returned to normality. This is likely exacerbated by rising costs from inflation, as just as it seemed the world was returning to normal and we could enjoy things such as travel again, the cost has since exploded with no sign of mitigation any time soon.”

“Fundamentally, good wellbeing through lower job burnout benefits both the individual and their employers. The current workforce is still tight and the ability to attract talent is tough. This means the high burnout risk across the New Zealand workforce not only needs to be acknowledged but greater emphasis on reducing it is vital,” Professor Haar says.

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