After a year of navigating COVID, American workers are among the most stressed-out in the world, a new poll shows

Employee Burnout
  • Workers worldwide reported increased worry, stress, anger and sadness in 2020 in a new Gallup poll.
  • Fifty-seven percent of US and Canadian workers had high daily stress, above the 43% world average.
  • In the US and Canada, employed women and workers under 40 reported more stress than their peers.
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After a grueling year of work amid a pandemic, American workers are some of the most stressed in the world, according to a new Gallup poll.

Gallup’s “State of the Global Workplace: 2021 Report” found that workers in the US and Canada reported the highest levels of daily stress in the world last year, with 57% percent of US and Canadian workers experiencing high day-to-day stress.

Between the two countries, Canadian workers reported greater daily stress and worry than their US counterparts.

Globally, a record 43% of workers reported a lot of daily stress last year, which is up from 38% feeling in 2019, raising concerns about burnout after a particularly difficult year at work.

US and Canadian workers were also the most stressed in the world in pre-pandemic 2019, according to Gallup.

As work-life boundaries collapsed with the growth of remote work, and essential workers faced the constant threat of contracting the coronavirus on the job, employees around the world reported feeling higher worry, stress, anger and sadness in 2020 compared to the previous year.

Western Europe was an outlier, with workers there reporting less stress and anger in 2020 than in 2019.

Forty-five percent of all people polled, both working and not, said their lives were affected “a lot” by the pandemic. Of the workers, half said they got less money than usual from their employers or businesses because of the pandemic. Also due to COVID-19, 49% of employees worked fewer hours, and 53% temporarily stopped working. Just under one-third of workers worldwide lost their job or business due to the pandemic.

In the US and Canada, working women and employees under 40 experienced higher daily stress than their peers.

Sixty-two percent of female employees in the US and Canada reported feeling stress a lot of the day, compared to 52% of their male counterparts. This difference highlights the tendency for childcare and household duties to fall to women. This affected many women when schools closed during the pandemic, leaving them with the responsibility of caring of children stuck at home for remote learning while still needing to tend to their own remote work.

Gallup reported that this trend of working women experiencing high stress is “nearly universal” around the world.

Meanwhile, 64% of US and Canadian workers under 40 reported experiencing stress a lot of the day, compared with 51% of their global counterparts over 40. Gallup said childcare may again be a cause of the gap; younger workers, after all, may have had to take care of younger children, who often require more attention than older children, in the pandemic.

Gallup said another reason for the generational divide could be that older adults may have more of “a ‘this too shall pass’ mindset from previous life experiences that made them more psychologically resilient in crisis.” In addition, because younger workers have generally been in the workforce for less time, they may have seen the pandemic as a greater threat to their careers than older workers did.

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We analyzed the wellbeing of more than a million employees. Here’s how managers can tell if people are suffering, struggling, or thriving – and what to do about it.

Happy office workers
People with thriving career well-being are happier and more driven to meet their goals.

Reporting employees’ mental health and wellbeing will soon become a requirement for all organizations. How many employees in your company are suffering, struggling, or thriving?

Even prior to COVID-19, work and life had become blended. Remote working and flextime were on the rise. And then with many employees ordered to work from home to flatten the coronavirus curve, work and life became completely blended for most employees. Even with a vaccine and economic recovery, work and life will never be separated like they were in the past.

If you want to know the wellbeing of your employees, this two-part question, called the Best Possible Life Scale, is the best question item Gallup analytics has ever found to measure Gallup Net Thriving because it encompasses all aspects of an individual’s wellbeing.

Wellbeing at Work

Packed into any person’s responses to these two simple questions is almost everything in their life – from basic needs such as food and shelter to personal safety to a good job, social status, money, and health.

To effectively meet the new demand of managing the whole person, your organization will need to know how your employees answer the Best Possible Life Scale questions. Just like stock price is an indicator of current and future earnings, Gallup Net Thriving assesses the current and future resiliency of your workforce.

Analyze your employees’ current happiness level

Imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you:

  1. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time? (0-10)
  2. On which step do you think you will stand about five years from now? (0-10)

Let’s call the two parts of the Best Possible Life Scale “best life present” and “best life future.” They are both important because one reveals your current state, which influences your decisions right now, and the other reveals your hope for the future. Even people in a negative state can keep going if they have hope that things will get better.

Gallup tracked wellbeing in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the percentage of people who rated their lives highly on best life present dropped at a historic rate – while best life future improved slightly. People believed there was a way out.

We then analyzed how best life present and best life future predict happiness and health as well as negative outcomes such as stress, depression, and burnout. Information from best life present and best life future gives us, in combination, indicators of whether individuals are suffering, struggling, or thriving – an index of the resiliency of a culture.

We determined the thriving, struggling, and suffering categories based on analytics from over a million respondents across 160 countries.

Thriving: These respondents have positive views of their present life situation (7 or higher rating on best life present) and have positive views of the next five years (8 or higher rating on best life future). They report significantly fewer health problems and less worry, stress, sadness, depression, and anger. They report more hope, happiness, energy, interest, and respect.

Across countries, the percentage of thriving employees ranges from 8% to 87%.

Struggling: These respondents struggle in their present life situation and have uncertain or negative views about their future. They report more daily stress and worry about money than thriving respondents do.

Across countries, the percentage of struggling employees ranges from 12% to 77%.

Suffering: These respondents report that their lives are miserable (4 and below rating on best life present) and have negative views of the next five years (4 and below on best
life future). They are more likely to report that they lack the basics of food and shelter and more likely to have physical pain and a lot of stress, worry, sadness, and anger. They have less access to health insurance and care and more than double the disease burden compared with thriving respondents.

Across countries, the percentage of suffering employees ranges from 0% to 35%.

Help employees move from struggling to thriving

The first step is engaging your employees because engaged workers are more likely to involve themselves in your organizations’ wellbeing initiatives. Managers who engage their employees establish trust – making them open to wellbeing efforts that affect the whole person and issues related to suffering, struggling, and thriving.

Work should be a stabilizing force in people’s lives. This is particularly true in psychologically brutal times like those the world experienced in 2020. And employers play a central role in shaping the whole person. You can achieve net thriving without taking extreme measures or fundamentally changing who you are.

Improving wellbeing requires changing habits. So how do you make it easier for people to do things that are best for them in the long-term? The key is to identify your employees’ unique strengths and aim them toward high well-being.

Managers should have conversations with their employees about wellbeing, but only when you have built a foundation of trust. Well-being conversations without that personal connection can be a minefield. This is why starting well-being discussions with an employee’s strengths is so effective. These discussions:

  • focus on the individual’s positive contributions
  • don’t include awkward criticism that puts them on the defense
  • identify what makes them unique
  • establish a common language for strengths-based development that contributes to net thriving

When you can identify the specific strengths of an employee, you will know what that employee finds interesting, engaging, important, and valuable. This empowers you to have meaningful conversations and match wellbeing activities with that individual’s interests. Combining strengths and wellbeing at work is potentially the most transformational treatment yet in the urgent pursuit of resiliency, mental health and ultimately, net thriving.

People with high career well-being wake up every morning with something to look forward to doing that day. Whether they are working at home or in an office, classroom, or cubicle they have the opportunity to use their strengths each day and to make progress. Those with thriving career well-being have a purpose to their life and a plan to reach their goals. In most cases, they have a leader or manager who makes them enthusiastic about the future and friends who share their passion.

Adapted from “Wellbeing at Work: How to Build Resilient and Thriving Teams” by Jim Clifton and Jim Harter, Ph.D. Copyright 2021 Gallup, Inc. Reprinted with permission from Gallup Press. All rights reserved.

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