The Unequal Impact of Burnout: Caring for Frontline Workers

The Unequal Impact of Burnout: Caring for Frontline Workers

Peakon’s recent 2020 Holiday Click-Off survey revealed that 29% of people were on the brink of burnout at the end of last year. Considering the events of 2020, it may not come as a surprise, but discussions about how to address this issue often overlook those at the highest risk of burnout — frontline workers.

There’s a lot of advice about how to prevent employee burnout for office-based workers, such as meditation, taking walks during the day, telling your manager you need to take the afternoon off, etc. What’s less clear is how to support the people keeping our grocery stores open, picking fruit and vegetables in the fields, and making sure that our online purchases get to us quicker than we probably need them.

This not only has a financial cost — roughly $190B per year in burnout-related healthcare according to one study — but it also has a very real human cost.

The unmet needs of frontline workers

The people putting themselves at the greatest risk of contracting COVID-19 are also the ones who have the worst access to healthcare (in the U.S. particularly), and are paid the least. In the U.S., more than 90% of workers in the bottom 25 income percentile are unable to work from home, 50% of them do not have paid sick leave, and more than 75% of them do not have access to paid personal leave. 

Emerging data also highlights how low-wage workers are struggling more with stress, burnout, nightmares, and insomnia. The conditions they face each day not only impact their mental health, but they can also contribute to physical health problems such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. 

Many of you will be familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which highlights the basic necessities a person needs before they can move on to “higher concerns” such as esteem and self-actualisation. Two of these necessities include physiological needs (food, water, warmth, rest), and safety (personal and financial security, health and wellbeing). Based on his theory, it would seem that even the most basic needs of many frontline workers are not being met. 

Identifying the right kind of solutions

The needs of different people will vary depending on their work and working environment, so it’s important to recognize that most solutions are not going to be one-size-fits-all. Paying a livable wage — not just what the federal minimum requires — is a great example of a solution that’s proven to work across different industries.

Beyond pay, one of the most effective ways of knowing what to focus on is to ask.

Over the course of 2020 organizations around the world have increased the frequency and type of surveys they conduct. Based on our own analysis of more than 28 million employee comments, we have seen common themes emerging around “covid”, “mental health”, “stress”, and “balance”. Asking for feedback, however, isn’t something that should be limited to office-based employees.

Creating a bias for action

Listening is only the first step — feedback has to be followed up with action. That means putting feedback in the hands of frontline managers as quickly as possible. For people to trust your organizational leaders and view them as effective during times of turmoil and change, there needs to be a focus on transparency.

As you consider options on how, when, and what to listen for, it’s imperative that you prepare your managers to start driving change. At the local level, you don’t have to implement monumental shifts so much as you need to be honest and pragmatic. If people are concerned their work will impact their ability to care for family and personal needs, the solution could be as simple as a buddy system that allows them to find cover for a shift during personal emergencies.

Other solutions might be more complex and require a bigger investment of time and energy, but ultimately they will result in higher levels of engagement, and ensure the ongoing safety and wellbeing of employees on the frontline.

The key thing to remember is that a solution will only work if it’s what people actually need — make sure that you’re first working with accurate feedback.
As we head into 2021, there is a lot to be hopeful for. And while vaccines have started to make their way into circulation, the risk of burnout is still very real — especially for those on the frontline. That’s why it’s more important than ever to create a more inclusive and equitable employee experience for everyone.