Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY
The slow-to-recover economy is taking a new toll on workers across the USA: Not only are they stressed out from job uncertainties and stagnant pay, the stress has lasted so long that now they're burned out too, a new survey finds.
"A significant portion of the American workforce is burned out, and my concern is, that's rising," says Richard Chaifetz, CEO of ComPsych Corp., a Chicago-based provider of employee assistance programs to more than 17,000 organizations worldwide, covering more than 45 million employees.
ComPsych's national survey of 1,880 workers, completed earlier this month, finds signs of prolonged stress in attitudes about work priorities, says Chaifetz, a clinical neuropsychologist.
Since last year, the most significant growth in work priorities is no longer accomplishing basic responsibilities or improving their performance, but just showing up. "Being present" was the most important priority cited by 22% of workers - a 47% increase since the survey began in 2003 and a jump of 3 percentage points since last year.
"In an environment where unemployment is high, showing up is the first thing. The importance of performance is second," Chaifetz says. "It correlates with burnout, stress, fatique, overwork and an obsession with and distraction by personal issues."
"It gets to the point where ... it's a drudgery just to get to work," Chaifetz says. "They have to push themselves just to show up. What we watch is trends and that trend is up."
Such news doesn't surprise those who work with large companies. A study on job satisfaction out this summer from the Conference Board, a non-profit think tank in New York that focuses on management and the marketplace, found "the majority of Americans continue to be unhappy at work." The "trend may signal increased satisfaction with simply having a job rather than demonstrate increased engagement or happiness," co-author Rebecca Ray says.
The representative survey of 5,000 U.S. households found just one-third (33%) of workers who were satisfied with their workload.
"People have been pretty much expected to soldier on ... and I think they've reached a saturation point," Ray says. "It's taken a toll on their psyche."
Among the 2012 findings out Wednesday:
- 63% say they have high levels of stress at work, with extreme fatigue and feeling out of control.
- 39% cite the workload as the top cause of stress.
- 53% take frequent "stress breaks" at work to talk with others; 36% say they just work harder.
- Almost half (46%) cite stress and personal relationship issues as the most common reason for absences, ahead of medical reasons or care-giving responsibilities.
"You can't have massive restructuring and reductions in force without having the workload become a massive issue," Ray says. "Until they're hiring again and bringing some additional capacity into the workplace, we're going to see a continuation of feelings of burnout that we see now."
Psychologist Ben Palmer is global CEO and founder of Genos International, a consulting firm that focuses on emotional intelligence and employee engagement. He says the current state of global competition means that Western nations in particular are unsuccessfully trying to compete with cheap labor in countries such as China and India.
"The more you adopt the 'do more with less' mentality, the greater you drive innovation down in the organization because high workloads and stress are the antithesis of innovation," Palmer says.
The economic situation is "not as temporary as many of us would have hoped," Ray says. "What we might have thought was perhaps a temporary aberration now seems to look like the new normal."