by David Epstein, CWP

We all feel tired and stressed at times. But constant, negative stress can lead to burnout, which is defined as “physical, emotional or mental exhaustion, accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance and negative attitudes towards oneself and others” (APA Dictionary of Psychology).

The Mayo Clinic notes that while burnout is not a medical diagnosis, it is an extreme state of workplace stress, which affects one’s physical and emotional health. It can lead to or be linked to depression, overuse of alcohol, among other illnesses.

Workplaces must be particularly mindful of the signs of burnout such as outbursts of crying or anger, disengagement, changes in behavior, sadness, and depression among its employees.

For some background, prior to the pandemic, burnout had already reached alarmingly high levels among United States healthcare workers, with over one-half of physicians and one-third of nurses experiencing symptoms, according to the National Center for Biotechnology in an NIH study in 2018.

By 2019, the World Health Organization classified burnout as a “syndrome” that is caused by “chronic workplace stress.” While burnout is specifically described as an “occupational phenomenon,” it can lead to serious physical and mental health concerns.

According to a 2021 report by HHS “persistent systemic social inequities and discrimination” worsen stress and associated mental health concerns for people of color during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color in America. Racial and ethnic disparities in health care are known factors contributing to the higher morbidity and mortality among people of color, as compared to white Americans. Housing insecurity, job loss, and essential work vs. being able to work remotely were among many disparities for BIPOC communities.

SHRM surveyed more than five hundred working Americans in 2021 as the pandemic entered its second year. These employees shared insights about their mental health and the workplace. Overall, they felt worn down. Six out of ten respondents said they were exhausted when leaving work. Four out of ten said they were burned out from work. And three out of ten said their workplace’s culture was making them irritable at home.

And Indeed, the job site conducted a survey of 1,500 U.S. workers to determine the level of burnout exhibited by different groups of people. The subjects were picked from various age groups, experience levels, and industry sectors. The study compared current findings against a prior pre-pandemic study in January 2020.

Some of the highlights of this survey indicated:

  • Burnout is on the rise. Over half (52%) of survey respondents are experiencing burnout in 2021—up from the 43% who said the same in Indeed’s pre-Covid-19 survey.
  • Fifty-three percent of Millennials were already burned-out pre- pandemic, and they remain the most affected population, with 59% experiencing it today. However, Gen-Z is now right on their heels, as 58% report burnout—up from 47% who said the same in 2020.
  • Baby Boomers show a 7% increase in burnout from pre-pandemic levels (24%) to today (31%). And at 54%, more than half of Gen-Xers are currently burned out—a 14% jump from the 40% who felt this way the year before.
  • Eighty percent of respondents said COVID has impacted workplace burnout—though, how and to what extent varied. A significant majority say burnout has worsened.

All these factors and statistics make it critical for organizations to try to fill gaps in mental health and emotional care for their employees. They also must reassess what mental health and wellness programs they had in the workplace pre-pandemic, during the pandemic, and post-pandemic – and identify and address the gaps.

Traditional benefit programs and Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) were not sufficient to meet the needs of employees. Also, many employers’ benefit plans lacked sufficient mental health coverage, especially since most therapists do not take insurance so out-of-network coverage is essential. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there was a 25% increase in anxiety and depression, impacting productivity, employee engagement, and well-being. And in the wake of the pandemic and social unrest due to the tragic murder of George Floyd, along with Anti-Asian, Anti-BIPOC, and anti-Semitic violence, employee expectations for their employer changed, and many felt they should do more to support them.

This change in thinking goes beyond the expectation of offering traditional medical, dental, and life insurance; rather, employees expect their workplaces to promote wellness, and in particular support for mental and emotional health. Furthermore, employees expected their leaders to ensure that they feel psychologically safe. Critical to achieving this, was to have diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs and training, reflecting social justice values. Not only did employees expect wellness programs to include DEI, but organizations realized that doing so was critical to establishing a workplace in which all staff were engaged and felt psychologically safe.

Organizations need to create space for safe discussions surrounding DEI issues such as racism, trauma, and violence directed at BIPOC, Asian, Latinx, and LGBTQIA+ communities.

According to Guardian’s 10th Annual Workplace Benefit Trends Survey, “Employees who are part of a corporate culture that values flexibility and inclusion, supports diversity, responds to social justice causes, and encourages empathy generally report 70% better well-being than those who work in an organization that does not offer DEI support.”

What is needed to create and prioritize a culture of wellness through a DEI lens requires intentionality and investment. It needs to be communicated as a priority to employees, with a structure that allows for feedback and to pivot as needed. Some areas to consider filling gaps include:

  • Anti-racism/unconscious bias training: provide anti-racism and unconscious bias training to staff, managers, and the Board.
  • Vicarious trauma program: recognize that staff may experience trauma through the work they do or their experiences such as caring for a loved one or witnessing a violent event on TV. Bring mental health professionals in to provide training and ongoing support.
  • Focus groups on specific issues: Proactively provide opportunities for employees to discuss how they feel on a regular basis. It is important to check in often.
  • Affinity groups: Support and encourage existing and new affinity groups in the workplace.
  • Employee Feedback Surveys: Have a formal, anonymous survey to get feedback from staff.
  • Enhanced mental health programs: Ensure that mental health is affordable and that employees are encouraged to seek help, and that this is not stigmatized. Often, therapists do not accept insurance; it is important to offer out-of-network benefits or a health reimbursement or flexible spending program to help cover these costs.
  • Evaluate Employee Assistance (EAP) programs: Ensure that the EAP is meeting the needs of your workplace. For example, how many sessions are offered to staff, and how are these short-term therapy sessions linked to the medical program?
  • Flexible and remote work options: Examine how work is done and whether jobs can be done remotely or with more flexibility, in order to meet employees where they are.
  • Child and elder care: Consider offering support for child and elder care. This may include a program that provides discounts for childcare, as well as, senior daycare programs, for example.
  • Empathic Leadership: Leaders and supervisors need to understand how to support staff who are experiencing mental health issues, as well as the impacts on their families as caregivers for children and elderly parents.
  • HR’s Role: federal, state, and city leave programs – educate employees about them.
  • Training: train managers on what to look out for.

Several mobile apps like Headspace help employees cope with stress and anxiety, build resiliency, or connect with mental health providers. However, traditional mental health benefits do not always address the root of the issue for caregivers. A key piece of a holistic mental health strategy is the support of employees with their caregiving challenges, many of which I mentioned earlier such as flexible work schedules and access to mental health care.

A constant, proactive approach is needed to address the changing and individualized wellness and mental health needs of employees. Waiting to address burnout when it happens is much more difficult than having systems in place to be able to detect and address them early on.



David G. Epstein, SHRM-SCP, CWP, CDP, is the Director of Human Resources & Talent Strategy for Mobilization for Justice, Inc., in New York City. He is a Certified Wellness Practitioner, a Certified Diversity Professional, and a Senior Certified HR Professional. He is a Life and Career Coach and professional member of the American Counseling Association.