Much has changed within the workplace after COVID-19. A more enlightened way to address staff burnout is a favourable outcome. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

The World Health Organization’s decision to add ‘burnout’ to its International Classification of Diseases as an occupational phenomenon - less than a year before COVID-19 - has proven to be particularly prescient. We now know that changes to working conditions resulting from the pandemic are exposing gaps in the ability of businesses in the region to respond to the risk of employee exhaustion.

A year after the start of the pandemic, Mercer Marsh Benefits (MMB) commissioned a survey of more than 100 regional HR and risk management professionals and, worryingly, the research identified workforce exhaustion as one of the top people-related challenges, particularly at financial institutions.

The issue of deteriorating workforce health is evidenced by rising numbers suffering from anxiety, stress, depression and addiction in the wake of the pandemic – conditions that are exacerbated by the post-pandemic culture of permanent change and digitalization. The first step to safeguarding employee mental health is for firms to understand and recognize what the causes and triggers are.

Distance working, irregular hours, a lack of resources, shifting reporting lines and an inability to influence decisions in a real-world environment are factors that employers should look out for. Other triggers include being micromanaged, being undermined by colleagues, or finding yourself in the firing line of a stressed-out boss – all matters that out of the control of the individual.

A $1 trillion productivity loss

To recognize the impact of these factors, employers should look out for physical and behavioural signs. The WHO characterizes these as symptomatic of chronic stress, leading to feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from the job; feelings of negativism or cynicism related to the job; and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

It is hardly surprising therefore that, according to a WHO study, workplace stress costs the global workforce an estimated $1 trillion in lost productivity each year. And the American Psychological Association (APA) reports that companies that fail to recognize the impact that mental health problems have on performance have a higher turnover, lower productivity and higher healthcare costs.

To fail to invest in resources and strategies that address these issues is a false economy. Senior leadership must become engaged in how to avoid ‘human risk’. It is a priority for companies seeking sustainable operations to weave human risk into ESG policies because the responsible management of employees represents good governance and corporate responsibility.

Of course, for investors or shareholders, it provides greater assurance of high productivity.

The good news is of course that we are talking about these issues: the pandemic has firmly put people matters on the boardroom agenda and business leaders are increasingly looking to address these challenges holistically. By applying a risk management lens to their people strategies organizations can build a productive workforce and business resilience.

Organizations must ensure that there is support at the highest level, with engaged leaders, investment in skilled resources and adequate budgets to proactively change cultures, practices, and employee support programmes. Human risk is no longer solely an HR issue – it is a matter of output and sustainability. It is a boardroom issue.


Employees also need to be encouraged to share their concerns without fear of reprisals or misunderstandings. Colleagues must be allowed to talk about stress without fearing demotion or a lack of promotion. HR leaders can assist by developing employee assistance programs and by creating new lines of communication.

Many organisations are starting to explore wellbeing programmes such as yoga or meditation that can assist those suffering from day-to-day stress. Bosses should also assess the impact of these measures to understand their efficacy in alleviating stress and increasing productivity. Wellbeing programmes will prove helpful to many but not all – and for those suffering from significant symptoms of exhaustion, there may be a need for professional interventions and forms of guidance both professionally and personally.

Companies operating in the region can also take a lead from governments. The UAE Government announced a new National Strategy for Wellbeing 2031. It aims to make the UAE a world leader in quality of life, underpinned by 14 components and nine strategic objectives to manage mental health and promote physical and psychological wellbeing.

State players are increasingly aware that national productivity rests upon societal wellbeing: so, must businesses recognize that their corporate success rests on the mental health of their employees.