Image: iStock/Carlos Pintau

The coronavirus introduced widespread fear throughout the enterprise and workers wondered, Will I contract COVID-19? How bad will it be if I do? Will a loved one get it? Will my work survive the shut down? Will I get furloughed? Laid off? Fired?

Protocols were quickly introduced for safety, all nonessential offices closed, workers were sent home to shelter and work remotely. And a return to the office (if indeed there is one), still seems vaguely in the distance.

The industry has now passed the “survival” stage (enough to identify what works for the business and what does not). The online education MindEdge Learning & Human Resources Certification Institute (HRCI) decided it was time to assess the pandemic’s actual impact by examining both the struggles and successes of businesses, amid the threat of COVID-19, and produced the joint research “HR in the Age of Workplace Uncertainty.”

Stress and struggles: There were businesses and jobs so on the margin that shuttering was the only option, but other organizations stepped up. The report begins with the admission that employees are still struggling amid the pandemic, with burnout on the rise and HR leaders navigating the novelties of a remote workforce (84% of respondents said their companies were operating remotely, and 58% stated remote work was a direct response to COVID-19 ).

Blame COVID-19: 75% of respondents experienced an increase in employee burnout, which they cited as due to stress related to the pandemic. Companies, the report stated, introduced new benefits (53%) in an effort to quell the stress, and 47% will not provide any training. If the plan has not been implemented yet, they said they will do so soon.

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

The results of the online survey of 757 HR professionals taken from Sept. 15 to Oct. 2, also show that workplace stress and burnout have increased sharply during the pandemic.

“The pandemic has understandably put a great deal of pressure on the U.S. workforce,” said Frank Connolly, director of research at MindEdge Learning, in a press release. “The survey shows that while stress levels are up, companies are trying hard to maintain base pay, and many are adding benefits that will help combat stress.”

Businesses step up: Yet the report also reveals something positive: The majority of companies have not reduced base pay (81%) or benefits (89%). HR departments have had to keep abreast of employees and how they’re coping, and 68% of HR operations are conducted remotely.

Open positions: The report found that 88% of companies continue(d) to hire during the pandemic, but 43% hire at a lower rate than before.

SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Skilled job-seekers: Whether it’s because so many furloughed or laid-off employees took advantage of the numerous online courses, designed to refresh skills or develop new ones that were available while many were isolating, the report noted that, overwhelmingly, respondents said current applicant pools are better qualified compared to pre-pandemic candidates. Nearly three-quarters of respondents (73%) said there’s more qualified people in their specialty area searching for jobs, more so than pre-COVID-19. The report explained “a large part because high unemployment means there are more experienced workers in the applicant pool.”

Challenges of online hiring: Even though many company HR departments embraced new technologies, appreciated they were able to smoothly make a digital transformation, a substantial number of HR professionals expressed reservations about needing to recruit, as well as onboard applicants remotely, with 35% who said remote recruiting is harder than in-person recruiting, and only 18% say that it is easier. HR staffers said that 38% say that remote onboarding is harder than in-person onboarding, and only 9% say that it is easier; 25% said remote interviews are less productive than in-person interviews, and only 14% agree the virtual transformation is more productive.

A lack of training: Despite the universally considered “new normal,” companies haven’t been training employees to work remotely efficiently. HR professionals (57%) said their companies don’t provide training on how to work remotely, and only 33% of companies have remote-work training available.

Benefits: But when benefits had to be addressed, or reduced or eliminated, it revealed among those benefits it was the employer-match plan 401(k) matching was the most likely to be reduced or eliminated, yet only 8% of respondents report that their companies did so.

Stress and burnout rise, company culture plateaued: Despite the rise in stress, 42% of HR professionals said company culture was unchanged. A quarter said that company culture has grown weaker, while 23% say that it has improved, but 25% said it has grown weaker.