“People are exhausted”: COVID-19 has led to mass burnout and doubled staff turnover rates, Culture Amp data shows

Culture Amp Didier Elzinga

Didier Elzinga is the founder and chief executive officer at Culture Amp.

After an initial shock to the system when the COVID19 pandemic took hold, some businesses, including newly-minted Aussie unicorn Culture Amp, have bounced back more strongly than expected.

But business success doesn’t automatically mean a satisfied workforce.

In fact, data from Culture Amp’s employee survey products suggest the ongoing challenges of COVID-19 around the world have created a workforce that’s exhausted, and led to turnover rates double what they were pre-pandemic.

Last year, Culture Amp itself was forced to make some layoffs, cutting 36 people — or eight per cent of its workforce.

“The whole world didn’t know how long this was going to last,” co-founder and chief Didier Elzinga tells SmartCompany.

“We had to be ready to ride this out … as every business did.”

For Culture Amp, the idea was to bring the business back to being cash-flow positive, Elzinga explains; to get it on “a very solid footing”, so it could continue to grow.

Towards the end of 2020, that’s exactly what was happening, and as we entered 2021, “things were really flying”.

Over the past 12 months, Culture Amp has seen a 300% increase in usage of the platform, and surpassed the 4,000 customer mark.

It’s also rebuilding its workforce and then some, having hired 130 people over the past quarter alone. Elzinga expects to bring on a total of 300 new team members in 2021.

The co-founder does recognise, however, that one of the drivers of Culture Amp’s growth has been the ongoing pandemic crisis, and the challenges that continue to bubble away in workplaces across Australia and the world.

“It’s almost like a drumbeat that’s got louder and louder,” he says.

“How are you helping your people?”

“People are exhausted”

As an employee survey platform, Culture Amp has access to a vast amount of data that offers insights into how workers are feeling.

That data points to one major conclusion, says Elzinga.

“People are exhausted.”

Throughout the crisis, some businesses have bounced back better than expected, he notes. Certainly the markets have recovered more quickly than expected and the Australian economy didn’t necessarily take the hit that was initially expected.

The cost of all of that, however, is human, Elzinga says.

Between working from home, homeschooling, ongoing uncertainty and separation from family overseas, employees are, understandably, experiencing burnout on a mass scale. Importantly, that’s true of businesses that are doing well, as well as those that are struggling.

“You’re not working from home,” Elzinga says. “You’re at home, during a crisis, trying to work.”

The data shows staff turnover rates are double what they were pre-pandemic. Suddenly, keeping team members on board is a priority for businesses of all sizes and at all levels.

And they’re flying blind. No one has ever faced this situation before, Elzinga notes. There is no script to follow.

“Everyone is having to figure it out together, and that’s both terrifying and exciting at the same time.”

The ‘messy middle’

Elzinga says we’re currently in something of a “messy middle” phase of the COVID-19 crisis. Organisations are not exactly in crisis mode anymore, but the crisis hasn’t passed either.

That collective exhaustion is compounded by ongoing uncertainty, particularly around returning to an office working environment.

According to Culture Amp’s data, more than 50% of people say they don’t feel they can return to the workplace without disrupting their current routine, and 44% are concerned they will face ‘minimal’ disruption.

Further, only 57% believe their transition back to the workplace will be straightforward, and 90% believe their team or department will benefit from at least some remote element in their work in the future.

The data from all over the world, and across various industries points to the same thing, says Elzinga: people are dissatisfied, but can’t quite put their fingers on why.

So what can employers do about it? And is anyone getting it right?

Who’s doing it right?

While admitting he is biased here, Elzinga says that if there’s one good thing to come from COVID-19, it’s that it has shone a spotlight on the importance of a strong work culture, work-life balance and employee support.

“We’re seeing the employee experience move from something that’s perceived to be a ‘nice-to-have’ in a boom time, to something that’s been critical in a difficult time and that will set you up to be successful,” he explains.

“It’s a really weird world at the moment,” he adds.

“A lot of businesses are doing very well. They’re growing very quickly, but their people can’t keep up.”

This means no one is actually getting this right when it comes to addressing burnout, says Elzinga. There is no playbook for a pandemic and no case studies to draw on — at least not yet.

But he is heartened by the conversations he’s hearing, the acknowledgement for leaders that they’re facing a human challenge, and that it’s not going to be an easy fix.

“There’s great appetite for us to make changes in the coming years that otherwise would have taken decades,” he says. 

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