2021 must be a year of introspection, where organisations reassess, reimagine, and recover their pre-pandemic growth momentum. Some will even capitalise on new opportunities in a post-pandemic world and reach new heights of success. To achieve this, however, it is vital to take stock of the state of employee resilience after one year of the pandemic. Are employees continuing to stay engaged and happy with their WFH lives? Has the initial toll on mental health eased, or have new challenges emerged? What are the dynamics of workplace engagement now that WFH, hybrid, and office work are beginning to coexist and coalesce? 

To answer these questions, we surveyed about 8,000 employees between 20 and 60+ years of age across eight different industries. The results, in conjunction with our findings from last year, reveal important insights on the state of employee resilience and how organisations can adapt. 

What’s changed in 2021 vs 2020?

In 2020, organisations grappled with a short-term, tactical question – how do you transform operational modalities for a low-touch world with restricted mobility? According to Gartner, 82% of company leaders planned on switching to WFH for the foreseeable future, a trend that would become the “new normal” around the world. At that time, despite the disruption, employees were optimistic about the future. 81% showed significant degrees of resilience and were confident about the future of their organisation. 53% were able to avoid burnout and said that their stress levels were still normal (all things considered). 69% of managers were giving clear and regular feedback to employees. 

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In 2021, all these numbers have come down. From 81%, just 64% of employees say that they are confident about their organisation’s future this year. 44% are able to avoid burnout, vs. 53% last year. Even the number of managers providing feedback has decreased by five percentage points. 

As companies look forward to another operational, cultural, and organisational shift with a gradual reopening in 2021, resilience will be a key factor for success. 

There’s no one-dimensional definition of burnout, and your engagement strategies must keep up

It is time to move the discussion away from a one-size-fits-all understanding of what constitutes burnout. While last year, organisations tried to keep stress levels to a minimum, there are other considerations this year – such as the rise of a “languishing” population and varying degrees of stress among vulnerable employee demographics. Here’s what our research revealed: 

  • Caregivers are far more likely to face burnout than other employees (30% vs. 22%). 
  • The number of those feeling neutral (i.e., who are just able to cope or are “languishing”) increased by 13%. 
  • The younger an employee, the more they are at risk of burnout. 

What does this mean for employers? 

To begin with, employee benefits packages must align with mental health requirements in 2021 with a special focus on addressing a person’s unique state of burnout risk. For example, a wide spectrum of mental health support from mindfulness apps to certified counselling could help a diverse workforce bring their best selves to work. 

This also means that it is necessary to study burnout risk and stress triggers across the organisation and align workloads accordingly (incidentally, we found that 93% of employees with low workloads are able to avoid burnout) compared to just 36% among those with high workloads. As Alvin Goh, Executive Director, Singapore Human Resources Institute (SHRI), mentions, “We need to be mindful about the mental health of our employees. Working from home on extended working hours over long periods of time can also bring about detrimental issues. Leaders must adopt an emphatic mindset and lead with a human lens.”

Amid fluctuations degrees of manager involvement, organisations have to intervene

A crucial point of difference between last year and now is the level of manager involvement in employee lives. Consider these statistics revealed by our research: 

  • 64% of managers provide “clear and regular feedback” in 2021 vs. 69% in 2020 
  • 71% provide employees with the support they need vs. 77% in 2020 
  • 74% of employees feel they have someone at work they can count on vs. 77% in 2020 

These are worrying signs and can be attributed to a number of factors. For one thing, remote team management calls for a different operational structure and different processes from usual, office-based work. Some of these structures and processes could be starting to break down as the workforce suffers from WFH fatigue. Second, our study also suggests that managers are more comfortable overall with the new normal when compared to the general workforce. This could lead to a sense of satisfaction and complacency that causes a disconnect from their remaining team members. 

Illustrating this, managers have a 1.7x higher workload than non-managers, they are also 2.3x more engaged, and have a more favourable outlook about their organisation’s future, than their non-managers counterparts. 

Clearly, organisational intervention is needed to bridge this divide and leverage managers – who form a highly engaged, productive asset for most of the organisations we polled. They must provide managers with refresher training, and upskilling opportunities for a remote working world. Communication channels must also be in place to facilitate frequent, two-way conversations between employees and their immediate supervisors. Interestingly, employees who report having discussed work problems with their managers show a consistently higher level of engagement than those who don’t. 

In other words, unleashing managers’ potential equals a happier workforce, which would go a long way in solving the resilience challenge. 

A diverse workforce will experience the new normal differently – are you collecting the right data?

While a dip in resilience was observed among the entire workforce, there are key differences among specific groups and demographics. For example: 

  • Remote workers feel more productive at their job (77%) than office (73%) and hybrid (72%) workers.
  • They are also better equipped in terms of skills and technology, making them more likely to stay with the organisation for another year (77%) than their office (69%) and hybrid (72%) counterparts. 
  • Older employees above the age of 50 are far more productive than their millennial and Gen Z counterparts with at least a 15 percentage point difference across remote, office and hybrid categories. 

Organisations need accurate data to understand what’s driving engagement, productivity, and long-term resilience in their own unique workforce composition. As Sylvia Koh, Chief People Officer, Group Human Resources, Crimson Logic, IHRP SP, mentions, “The insights will provide us with a realistic view of employees’ perspectives and enable us to work towards more pointed strategies to help managers to render greater support, provide stretch, continually build trust and self-discipline.”

Act now 

A critical action point for organisations in 2021 will be the adoption of technology and smarter communication strategies. Sophisticated technology tools can not only bring distributed teams together and reduce workloads but also make employees feel empowered. 66% said they want to learn new digital/tech skills while 47% wanted to communicate better. Listening to the voice of the employee and responding to their needs will help organisations keep pace with a fast-changing work environment, addressing the dip in resilience even as they maximise their managerial talent, digital potential, and the innate drive of the workforce to stay productive. 

This article was contributed by Leong Chee Tung, CEO and co-founder of EngageRocket

About the author

cheetung-profile-landscape EngageRocket

Chee Tung is committed to bring the same level of analytics, sophistication, and scientific rigour to managing people as is currently applied to managing finance and customers. He is the CEO of EngageRocket, the APAC’s fastest-growing people analytics provider that analyses employee feedback in real-time to advise you on how to manage your team better.

Before becoming an entrepreneur, he was Regional Director of Gallup in Southeast Asia. He read Economics at the University of Cambridge, and has an MA in Political Science from Columbia University under the Singapore Armed Forces Overseas Scholarship (SAFOS).