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The COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting year of working from home have negatively impacted the health of 55% of the global workforce, according to new research from Gartner. All segments have experienced “significant and widespread damage to workforce health,” the 2021 Gartner Workforce Resilience Employee Survey found.

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Specifically, there has been an impact among at least half of the workforce at each level; at least 44% of the workforce in each function; and at least 35% of the workforce in every industry, the firm said.

“Many leaders have looked at productivity to gauge how employees have done during the pandemic,” said Molly Tipps, senior director, advisor, in the Gartner HR practice, in a statement. “While HR leaders and employees report that productivity has maintained or improved since the onset of COVID-19, the cost has been substantial declines across many workforce health elements.”

The research found that 85% of employees have experienced higher levels of burnout, while 40% report declines in their work-life balance. This has impacted the health of relationships as well, Gartner said. The disruption of the pandemic has led to 41% of employees having lower trust in their teams and 37% having lower trust in leadership.

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The pandemic has also impacted the work environment. As a result of the immediate shift in where and how people work, 29% of employees have a lower level of change receptivity, and 31% experienced a lower level of inclusion, Gartner said.

“These impacts to health are both long-term and hard-to-reverse,” said Piers Hudson, senior director analyst in the Gartner HR practice, in a statement. “Moving forward, organizations must figure out how to sustain and grow performance, whether in a period of disruption or not, without damaging the health of employees.”

Three ways to sustain workforce resilience through disruption

Gartner recommended that HR leaders work with other business leaders and managers to address three workforce health lessons.

A “thriving and diving” dynamic has resulted from the pandemic even though Gartner’s talent data looks to be overall unchanged, the firm said. Among the employees surveyed, 30% experienced limited or no change to their psychological safety. Another 34% experienced a decline in psychological safety, while 36% reported significant improvements.

Employees who had the highest levels of workforce health pre-COVID were not necessarily more likely to thrive, and those with the lowest pre-COVID workforce health were not predisposed to fare worse, Gartner said.

“Therefore, leaders need to deepen their understanding of how disruption impacts different employees to develop effective and affordable interventions, rather than focusing on average, and ultimately misleading, findings,” Gartner said.

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The second recommended measure is to give employees “a more personal sense of purpose.” Even while HR works to keep employees inspired and connected to the organization, the focus is often on corporate culture and a shared mission, the firm said.

“When employees believe that their work is personally relevant, there is a 26% increase in the likelihood of the organization to sustain workforce health,” Gartner said.

There also needs to be a sense of connection among employees. While 51% of teams were disrupted during the pandemic, connections in immediate working teams matter most, Gartner’s research revealed. “Highly cohesive teams have a 37% higher likelihood of sustaining workforce health,” the firm said.

The third recommendation shines a spotlight on leaders. “Our research uncovered that one of the biggest drivers of workforce resilience is leaders themselves, and their ability to both understand and address the barriers that are preventing employees from having a healthy work–and life–experience,” said Cian O’Morain, director in the Gartner HR practice, in a statement.

Many organizations attempted to boost resilience by adding employee benefits or recognizing and rewarding employees for their work. However, these activities had minimal impact in improving workforce resilience, according to Gartner.

Leaders offered more autonomy after the pandemic hit, believing it would improve health by speeding decisions and reducing frustration, Tipps said. “While autonomy can have a positive impact on key elements of workforce health, it is a capability that needs to be built over time.”

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However, increasing autonomy as workload increases seriously degrades workforce health, Gartner’s research revealed. For the 83% of employees who are operating at, or above, capacity, increased autonomy diminishes their chances of having good workforce health by more than 30%.

HR should focus on looking further than function- or segment-level averages to understand the parts of the workforce that have experienced damage and the parts that have thrived, Gartner said.

Officials should also help employees tie personal goals with business goals, make work easier and engage employees with empathy and provide opportunities for them to practice autonomy—with limits, according to the firm.

The report included aggregated data from over 20,000 employees and 70 HR leaders. The firm also interviewed 94 HR leaders, Gartner said.