Sophie quit her job a few weeks ago. The second wave of pandemic lockdowns had pushed her feelings of burnout to the limit and she submitted her notice of resignation without a permanent role lined up.
A media worker in her mid-twenties based in Sydney, Sophie, who requested her real name not be used, said she made the decision for her mental health, after a year of battling to manage the demands of her job while working from home.
“I realised that I just was completely burnt out by my job,” she told Business Insider Australia.
For many workers, including those with long commutes, working from home during the pandemic has given them back valuable time and space. But a growing body of research suggests the second long stretch of pandemic lockdowns has tested the mental and emotional wellbeing of employees.
Australian white collar workers are burnt out
A recent survey conducted by HR technology company The Adecco Group of 14,800 office-based workers across 25 countries, including 1,000 in Australia, found Australian office workers are the most burnt out in the world, ahead of Italy, China, Canada, the US and UK.
More than half of the Australian respondents said they suffered from burnout in the last 12 months, with 52% admitting they’ve taken time off due to mental health concerns during pandemic lockdowns.
Similar research from LinkedIn found 52% of office workers have taken time off during the pandemic to support their mental wellbeing.
Of these, almost four in five young Australians aged 16-24 reported they had taken time off while working through lockdowns to look after their mental health.
It also found that 21% of Australian workers feel isolated while working from home, a figure that jumps to 26% when examining the experiences of women.
Studies also suggest this burnout is being driven by a surge in productivity; a result of increased hours facilitated by the dissolving barriers between work and home.
Data from global HR and payroll provider ADP suggests Australian office workers are putting in an average of seven hours overtime a week, with employees working from home or in ‘hybrid’ office and home arrangements more susceptible to racking up extra hours.
Of those surveyed, more than a third said they’d been forced to compromise between their work and their health while working through lockdowns.
Preeti Bajaj, chief executive of The Adecco Group Australia, said the numbers show burnout is the hidden downside of flexible working — and one that will need to be addressed as companies consider ongoing plans for remote work.
“Australian office workers have risen to the challenge of remote working – many of us are now happier in our jobs and more productive,” Bajaj said.
“Unfortunately, the numbers also show that overwork is increasingly common. Some are finding it more challenging to switch off at the end of the day or are feeling emotionally and motivationally cut off while at work,” she said.
Australian workers tap out
Sophie had been keenly aware of the impacts her hectic job was having on her wellbeing, but she said the perks and distractions of the office had helped her balance the stresses of the role.
But while working from home for the second time as pandemic lockdowns shuttered offices in June of this year, the challenges became impossible to dismiss.
“I guess it wasn’t something that I could ignore,” Sophie said.
As is often the case with knowledge worker jobs where projects rarely have a clear end point, and without the traditional delineation between work and home, she found she was working later and later into the night.
“I think it’s just so easy to keep working, because nobody’s telling you to go home,” she said, adding “your home becomes your office and it’s so hard to track.”
Sophie said that, particularly for younger people who are less likely to have caring responsibilities, the office, with its opportunities for networking and social connection, was part of what she loved about her job. Without that thread knitted into the day-to-day work, the negatives were thrown into starker relief.
“It really kind of gave you a reason to come into the office because you’re seeing people and no two days are the same.”
“When you’re working from home? It’s just the same thing every single day.
“It’s super draining, to be honest.”
Sophie said she’d been putting off the decision – “because, you know, why would you quit a job in a pandemic?” but said she feels she made the right decision.
“The day I resigned, I just felt so much relief, like a weight had lifted from my shoulders.”
‘I don’t know if we’ve fully reconciled what work should look like’
Alex, a 32-year-old parent to small children based in Sydney, is counting down the days until he can return to the office where he works as a data analyst for a major technology company.
While he found the shift to working from home more difficult when the pandemic first hit in 2020 when “there was more uncertainty,” he told Business Insider Australia he’s struggled with the return to remote work.
While tech companies have used the pandemic as an opportunity to fully embrace remote work – both Atlassian and Canva have committed themselves to remote-first work models that promise employees that they’ll only have to come to the office eight times per year – Alex said more tech workers than you’d think actually place a high value the human element of their jobs.
“It is a critical facet of working that I don’t think I could manage without,” he said. “And this is something I share with quite a few of my colleagues.”
“Particularly because a lot of the job is actually quite impersonal, if you take away a further part of that, you’re sort of really running on fumes.”
Alex said that while tech companies in particular have invested in getting people the software and equipment they need to work effectively from home, working remotely has also removed some of the benefits these companies use “as a competitive advantage” in the first place, like communal fridges of beer and kombucha, elaborate team lunches and social events that are built into the office experience.
As a result, working from home made him feel like “more a unit of labour and less a member of a workplace.”
And while he appreciated how lucky he was to be able to work safely at home during the pandemic, in his role where much of the work is conducted independently, social interaction in the office was as important to him as the paycheque.
Alex also noted that for many workers, while it’s currently an unpopular perspective, working remotely actually means a further blurring of the lines between work and home.
“You don’t have the delineation between work time and non-work time, which was already a problem in any thought worker industry where you’ve got a smartphone, you’ve got a work email; that was already infecting your life,” he said.
“It’s one of the ironies of flexibility. I think it sounds great in theory, but then what I think happens in practice most of the time is you end up like making it easier to really blend the workday into your home life.”
Alex said he believes current debates around the future of the office were so fraught because the pandemic has highlighted the ways the office works – or doesn’t – for a hugely diverse range of people.
We haven’t fully reconciled as a company or even as an industry or even as a world what work should look like, he said.
“We have the technology to work remotely all the time, but the question is ‘should we’?”
“I’m in some ways concerned [about all these companies] when they say ‘we’re gonna commit to doing this forever.’”