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50% of workers are burned out and 'productivity paranoia' could be making it worse: 'People are just worn down'

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Burnout isn't a new phenomenon — but hybrid work environments could be making it worse. 

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, new, catchy terms like "The Great Resignation" and "quiet quitting" have flooded public discourse to describe the overwhelm workers are feeling, and the corresponding shifts in the labor market.

Even in a job market flush with opportunities, workers across the world are feeling overworked, disengaged and burnt out. Nearly 50% of employees and 53% of managers report that they're burned out at work, according to new research from Microsoft, which surveyed 20,000 people in 11 countries between July and August. 

A looming recession and renewed push from companies to get employees back into the office is prompting people to work longer hours, while leaders — unsure how to navigate the new landscape of work and troubled by signs of an economic downturn — are questioning if their employees are being productive at all, according to Microsoft's report.

Close to 90% of workers report that they are productive at work, Microsoft found, and productivity signals — average hours worked, the number of meetings taken each week — continue to climb. Yet 85% of bosses say hybrid work has made it hard to be confident that employees are actually being productive.

Microsoft calls this tension "productivity paranoia": a fear among leaders that remote and hybrid employees are being less productive than they would be in an office full-time, even though people are working more than ever. 

Productivity paranoia isn't just exacerbating the burnout workers have felt for years: Experts also warn that it risks making hybrid work unsustainable. Solving this issue needs to start at the top.

'We keep changing the rules of how we work'

The pandemic has had an unprecedented effect on where and how we work. While some changes have benefited employees, such as more flexible job opportunities and casual office dress codes, the constant experimentation and adjustments in the labor market have been "exhausting," Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, tells CNBC Make It

"People have displayed extraordinary resilience and ingenuity continuing to work in the face of a public health crisis," he says. "But that comes at the cost of burnout, which has been accentuated by the fact that we keep changing the rules of how we work … at some point, the fatigue catches up with you."

Put more simply: "It's been a rough two years, and people are just worn down," says Colette Stallbaumer, the general manager for Microsoft 365 and "future of work."

On the leadership side, managers are missing the pre-pandemic visual cues of what it means to be productive because they can't see how people are working by walking down the hall or stopping by their desks.

Compared with in-person managers, hybrid bosses struggle more to trust that their employees are giving their best efforts (49% vs. 36%) and say that they have less visibility into their direct reports' work (54% vs. 38%), Microsoft found. 

As employees feel pressured to "prove" they're working, their stress levels soar, Stallbaumer says.

Transitioning back to the office hasn't helped matters, either. Even as more people return to in-person work, companies continue to rely on the tools and structure they used for remote work, meaning some employees are commuting to the office just to spend their days in back-to-back virtual meetings, which could also be exacerbating burnout, says Brooke Weddle, a partner at McKinsey & Co. 

"There's confusion and frustration about what, exactly, the purpose of going back to the office is and how productivity is being measured, especially if you're productive at home," she says. "People's experiences aren't matching their expectations."

How leaders can better navigate hybrid work and reduce burnout 

Tackling burnout starts with setting clear expectations at work: 81% of employees agree it's important that their managers help them prioritize their workload, but only 31% say their managers provide clear guidance, per Microsoft's research.

Open, clear communication would be advantageous to bosses, too. Nearly 75% of managers say more guidance on prioritizing their own work would help their performance, and 80% report that they'd benefit from more clarity from senior leadership on what their priorities should be.

Another antidote to burnout is updating how we measure performance and productivity at work. 

"Leaders need to focus less on activity and more on impact," Stallbaumer says. "The most important question they should be asking themselves is: 'How can I create clarity and help people understand what to prioritize so we're rewarding employees' impact, not just their activity?'"

Managers can do this by setting standard objectives and key results (OKRs) for all employees, regardless of where they're working from. They can track the progress of these OKRs using an accessible online tool like Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel, Weddle says.

Stallbaumer also stresses the importance of creating a continuous feedback loop and taking action on employees' suggestions. 

"In this time of heightened volatility, keeping a pulse on your people shows you care, and can help you make better decisions to improve your team's well-being," she says. "Ultimately, managers should be helping workers focus on their mental health and recoup some of the work-life balance that we lost during the pandemic."

Check out:

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