“We’re Fine?”–  A Plea From The Overwhelmed, Overstressed, and Overworked

June 17, 2021

Overwhelmed Employees

You’re Not Happy, But You Don’t Know How To Show It

In the past year, I have worked from home, the park, the car, the hospital, and various other places I never imagined. With the majority of people working from home, employee engagement has improved for many in the pandemic. To verify this improvement in engagement, I compared data from 509,097 employees before the pandemic to 16,566 in the pandemic. Engagement data was gathered from leaders in hundreds of different organizations across the globe. Employee engagement was assessed using a five-item index which assessed employee satisfaction, discretionary effort, desire to quit, willingness to recommend the organization to others, and confidence that the organization will be successful. I found a three percentile point improvement on engagement in the pandemic results comparing the two different datasets. (This difference is statistically significant.) (T-Value 5.094, Sig. 0.000).

Employee Engagement Grew, But What Else Increased?

While satisfaction has improved for many, some employees are feeling more overwhelmed during the pandemic. The combination of work from home, childcare, and anxiety impacted some employees more than others. In a global study, I collected data from 537 managers and individual contributors and found that the group of employees feeling most overwhelmed was not the top management group or the individual contributors—it was the supervisors. Those stuck in the middle with less influence and more responsibility. As you can see in the graph below, 64% of supervisors agreed that they “Sometimes feel overwhelmed by all their work and changes.”

Graph Showing Increase in Overwhelmed employees

Who is Willing to Set Stretch Goals?

In the same study, I measured preferences for setting or resisting stretch goals. It was clear in the data that those who felt overwhelmed had a significantly lower preference for setting stretch goals. When people do not feel they can take on any more challenges, they resist setting goals to work harder and do more. Unfortunately, there is not always a strong correlation between the feelings people have of being overwhelmed and the amount of work they need to accomplish. It is difficult to believe that those in top management positions had fewer responsibilities, problems to solve, or issues that might overwhelm a person. What is possible is that top managers did have more control or perceived control over the issues they were facing. Feeling overwhelmed is a combination of workload, control, anxiety, frustration, and stress.

Overwhelmed Employees Don't Want to Set Stretch Goals

The Lack of Confidence in Lower Managers

In a different study conducted in the pandemic, I measured resilience and confidence for managers and employees. In this study, I collected data from 1,278 people. As shown in the graph below, resilience in an organization goes down by level or position in the organization. Confidence people have that they will be successful follows the same trend.

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Are We Ready for Full Steam Ahead?

In the US, most people are confident that the pandemic is ending. We often hear the words “return to normal.” Organizations are getting ready to return to full speed ahead. While optimism is increasing, our latest data shows that people continue feeling overwhelmed, resisting stretch goals, and lacking resilience for those in lower-level positions. Top managers, on the other hand, are thinking that everything is back to normal.

But it isn’t really normal. There are still a lot of people struggling and lacking the confidence to move ahead.

What Leaders Can Do to Help Employees Restore Resilience and Confidence

This list came from an analysis of data from direct reports of 1,000 leaders during the pandemic.

  1. Help employees focus on the top priorities. By getting everyone focused on the top priorities, the busy work moves to the bottom of the list, and people are doing things that make the biggest difference.
  2. Focus on the customer, their needs, and what you do that makes them successful and thriving. In the end, the customers can make a big difference in making employees feel valued, appreciated, and trusted.
  3. Bring some energy and excitement to work every day. In difficult times leaders tend to push hard, but right now, people need less push and more pull. Be energetic and optimistic about where the organization is going and the value that each employee brings. This practice helps everyone feel valued and appreciated.
  4. Have the courage to make changes that will improve the organization. No doubt the organizational issues have emerged because of the pandemic stress test. Quickly make changes that will make the organization function more efficiently and effectively.
  5. Continually communicate the vision and direction of the organization and connect that to the work employees do at every level. The pandemic shifted everyone into a short-term view of the world. People need to see the long view and be aware of the end game of the organization.
  6. Reach out and connect with the employees who are having the greatest pain, e.g., supervisors and individual contributors. Take the time to listen and understand their needs and concerns.

We all want to move forward, but we need to do it together.

—Joe Folkman
Connect with Joe Folkman on LinkedIn, Twitter,  or Facebook.

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