More than half of us are overworked: what’s the solution?

10 min read | Hannah Pearsall | Article | | Wellbeing


Chronic stress, cynicism and exhaustion – these symptoms are prevalent among the workforce, and there’s no sign of them abating in a post-pandemic world.

The statistics are hard to ignore: more than half (53%) of employees in the UK feel overworked, according to data from Censuswide, commissioned by people analytics company, Visier. And it’s an issue worldwide; an earlier report by US-based think-tank, Future Forum, cited burnout rising to 40% globally.

Workplace burnout may not be a new phenomenon, but its persistence means employers need to take a look at their company culture and the demands placed on their employees.

  • According to a report by McKinsey, 47% of surveyed workers feel that a lack of clear vision about work in the post-pandemic world is a cause for concern or anxiety.
  • Our What Workers Want 2023: Different Ways of Working report revealed that 43% of companies say they don’t ask for feedback on different ways of working.
  • The results from our four-day working week survey showed that professionals would spend extra time on life admin (76%), leisure time and exercise (69%), and with family/friends (69%).

Could you spot workplace burnout?

Burnout is an occupational phenomenon rather than a medical condition, which means it only applies to an individual in the workplace. It is characterised by three key symptoms; feelings of exhaustion or energy depletion, feeling negative or cynicism towards your job and reduced professional efficacy, and occurs as a result of chronic workplace stress that is not successfully managed. There are multiple causes of chronic workplace stress, but heavy workload and overworking appear to feature consistently.

At an organisational level, burnout can be highly disruptive. Reduced productivity, increased absences, and high turnover can be detrimental to an organisation’s growth and reputation. However, the human consequences on a global scale are more severe; research from 2021 indicated that three-quarters of a million people are dying from ischaemic heart disease and stroke each year, which can be attributed to working long hours and overwork.

Significant academic research exists on workplace burnout within healthcare and education, but the increased prevalence of burnout is a trend seen across practically every industry. So what’s causing such high levels of burnout?

It’s been well documented that burnout increased during the Covid-19 pandemic, and it may be possible that we’re experiencing a hangover from these effects, with current economic conditions doing nothing to alleviate the strain. Feelings of being overwhelmed at work are backdropped by an ongoing cost of living crisis, exacerbating workplace stress and career anxiety. This isn’t helped by media coverage of large-scale layoffs – especially in the tech sector – creating the perception of job insecurity, and adding increased pressure on professionals.

Is hybrid working a cure or curse?

Working from home is a boon for some, but places others at a greater risk of burnout. Although hybrid and remote working practices grant employees greater flexibility and autonomy, there is evidence that these models could come with a cost. Some studies suggest that remote working has contributed to longer working hours with less support, while also blurring the lines between professional and domestic life. Moreover, our What Workers Want report revealed that the majority of workers (56%) don’t have the option to work their own hours, possibly detracting from the lifestyle benefits that home-working offers.

Despite this, hybrid working remains a popular model – especially among the up-and-coming workforce. A recent survey by Deloitte found more than three-quarters of UK Gen Zs (77%) and a slightly lower percentage of millennials (71%) would consider looking for a new job if their employer asked them to go into their workplace full-time. Mirroring this figure, 71% of the organisations we surveyed in our What Workers Want report say they offer hybrid working to staff.

However, a lack of decisiveness regarding future work patterns could lead to unnecessary stress. According to a report by McKinsey, 47% of surveyed workers feel that a lack of clear vision about work in the post-pandemic world is a cause for concern or anxiety, with the report showing a correlation between ambiguity and burnout. Understanding your workforce’s needs is vital to achieving a definitive plan of action, yet 43% of the companies we surveyed say they don’t ask for feedback on different ways of working.

Is the four-day working week a solution?

According to our four-day week survey, 93% of professionals believe the four-day working week model is a good idea. An improved work-life balance could be a prime driver, with professionals stating they would spend extra time on life admin (76%), leisure time and exercise (69%), and with family/friends (69%). For parents, who may be especially prone to workplace burnout – juggling multiple responsibilities amid a national childcare crisis – a shortened working week could be particularly beneficial.

However, the reality of a shortened week may be more complicated: only 5% of the organisations we surveyed say they have implemented one. Of the companies who said they were neither trialling a four-day working week or considering it (58%), over half (53%) claimed they are not prepared from an operational perspective. Moreover, one in five employers (20%) were concerned about the pressure on staff, reflecting the argument that a compressed work week could result in longer hours and fewer breaks.

More research is needed to understand the wellbeing benefits and viability of a four-day workweek, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that workplace trends and cultures have evolved – recognising this may be key to your employees’ health and productivity.

What actionable strategies can organisations take?

Traditionally, the recovery or avoidance of workforce burnout has rested with the employee, but this hands-off approach may require a rethink. The classification by the World Health Organization (WHO) of burnout as an occupational phenomenon puts the onus firmly on the workplace as responsible for ensuring proactive burnout prevention. It’s vital that organisations are fostering a working environment that doesn’t compound existing pressures, while offering the right balance of support and flexibility.

Some recommendations include:

  1. Consider flexible working practices: Offering flexible working patterns will give more of your employees the chance to achieve a better work-life balance – and quite possibly improve your status as a desirable employer. As highlighted though, it’s important to remember that remote working and shorter work weeks may not be a cure-all for burnout.
  2. Establish clear expectations: No matter their role or seniority, all employees should be given clear and manageable expectations regarding their workload and responsibilities – both at home and in the office. Setting a limit on meeting times is a good starting point. Nearly half (49%) of professionals we surveyed in our What Workers Want report said they would find it useful if their employer encouraged no meetings during lunch or set hours, while 40% said it would be useful to have a mandated time limit. Likewise, stamping presenteeism out of your workplace culture will help set the stage for a healthier team dynamic that prioritises wellbeing over hours logged.
  3. Enhance communication and collaboration: Actively encourage open dialogue throughout your organisation, giving employees a platform to express their challenges and concerns – including those relating to workplace models. Better yet, foster a collaborative network that shares knowledge, reduces individual burden, recognises achievement, and cultivates a sense of camaraderie.
  4. Embed employee wellbeing and support: While business leaders and managers only have so much control over their employees’ lifestyle habits, it’s important to help them help themselves. Provide training and resources geared towards managing stress and developing effective coping strategies, and give your staff the space to psychologically disconnect from work regularly.

Burnout isn’t going to simply disappear. It may be that the pandemic has exacerbated burnout on a global scale, with wider economic concerns compounding the burden felt across society at large. But, organisations should strive to create a working environment that is understanding of different workers’ needs and places their health and wellbeing before the bottom line.

To help look after your workforce and provide them with the support they need, consider our Thrive online training platform, offering wellbeing training, remote working guidance, and much more.

And for more insights on different ways of working, download our What Workers Want 2023 report today.


About this author

Hannah Pearsall, Head of Wellbeing, Hays UK&I

Hannah has over 20 years of recruitment experience across a number of business areas, including construction and property, technology, engineering, energy, social care, human resources and procurement. She is now the Head of Wellbeing at Hays and leads on the design, development, implementation and delivery of a holistic and evolving wellbeing strategy for the UK and Ireland.

articleId- 61324450, groupId- 20151