American workers are burned out, and bosses are struggling to respond

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In the first 10 months of this year, America’s workers handed in nearly 39 million resignations, the highest number since tracking began in 2000.

Some want better jobs. Others, a better work-life balance. Still, others want a complete break from the corporate grind. Almost two years into the pandemic that left millions doing their jobs from home, many Americans are rethinking their relationship with work.

Business people at their desks in a busy, open-plan office.  (iStock)

Companies are struggling to stop employees from leaving and to boost morale. Some are trying mandatory companywide vacation days and blackout hours when meetings are banned. Executives are experimenting with new ways of working, including four-day workweeks and asynchronous schedules that allow people to set their own hours.

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Employers say burnout, long an issue for American workers and exacerbated by the pandemic, is a prime cause. A September survey by think tank the Conference Board found that more than three-quarters of 1,800 U.S. workers cited concerns such as stress and burnout as big challenges to well-being at work, up from 55% six months earlier. Half said workload-related pressure was harming their mental health.

A young businessman in front of his computer at the office. (iStock)

Tom Larrow, a 45-year-old information-technology manager for a financial-services company in Brunswick, Ohio, spent more than a year juggling work while helping his two young sons attend school online. He lost his mother-in-law to Covid-19. His nerves, he said, were frayed.

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In September, he said, he had a panic attack as he tried to give his diabetic son insulin and couldn’t figure out the dosage. "I could not, in my head, divide 50 by 25," he recalled. "I had to pull out a calculator and do that very, very basic math because my brain was so fried."

Mr. Larrow’s employer has provided sessions on stress management, he said, which included recommendations to take five-minute breaks and meditate.

Employees of Nomi Health check in a long line of people for COVID-19 tests, Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021, in North Miami, Florida. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

Chronic overwork already was rampant before the pandemic, said Alastair Simpson, vice president of design at software company Dropbox Inc. "We equated busy with good, or a badge of honor," he said.

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Over the past two decades, the length of the average American workday has increased by 1.4 hours, according to polling by Gallup Inc. For millions of Americans, as commutes disappeared and schedules grew more irregular, the pandemic lengthened days still further. In a survey this year, 16% of U.S. workers said they put in more than 60 hours a week, up from 12% in 2011.

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