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Workforce exhaustion: the pandemic side effect businesses didn’t see coming

Published 30 November 2021

While COVID-19 has caused illness, death and disruptions to almost every aspect of the way we live, it has also had a less obvious but equally serious impact on mental health. A report by the World Economic Forum has identified that deteriorating mental health has emerged as the 2nd highest risk to Australian workplaces.

“Our discussions with clients have shown that workforces and employers have been struggling with the mental and emotional toll from COVID-19 impacts during these past two years,” says Paul Marsh, Practice Leader – Workplace Risk, Southern Region. 

“Employers especially have had to deal with rapid change to survive, increasingly complex regulatory environments and keeping remote workforces engaged and productive. The positive opportunities that come with the vaccinated economy, allowing workforces the discretion of return to the workplace has not always resulted in the outcomes that employers expect. This is primarily related to the emotional exhaustion and burnout people are just coming to accept as their levels of anxiety increase through another period of change.”

Workforce exhaustion and deteriorating mental health, cybersecurity, talent attraction, retention and engagement are the top people-related risks for businesses, according to Australian risk managers and HR professionals.

However, survey respondents prioritising the extent to which businesses are addressing this risk only rated 14th, after other issues such as data privacy, labour and employee relations, and communicable diseases.


What pandemic mental health issues look like

Dealing with COVID-19 has placed extra demands in almost every area of people’s lives: eating, sleeping, key life events such as births, weddings and funerals, shopping for necessities, getting routine medical care, education, parenting and caregiving ‒ while being isolated from traditional support structures and normal routines such as going to work under familiar conditions.

Polling showed that at the start of the pandemic people, while anxious, responded to the need to act effectively to maintain business functions by showing increased engagement in their workplaces, but as time passed fatigue has set in, eroding mental wellbeing and threatening healthy business cultures and productivity. Some mental health impacts, not initially obvious, have subsequently revealed themselves.

Broadly this decline in mental health is expressed by 4 symptoms of pandemic stress.

  • Languishing is described as the void between depression and flourishing ‒ the absence of wellbeing.
  • Emotional exhaustion is the sense of overwhelm, of things being too much to handle.
  • Burnout or workplace exhaustion is a form of work-related stress that has not been successfully managed (World Health Organization).
  • Alonely is the opposite of loneliness. It's the dissatisfaction that comes from not spending enough time by yourself. 

In line with their duty of care obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act and Work Health and Safety Act businesses need to respond to the changed conditions appropriately by making supporting mental health a priority in their planning and management.

Research by Price Waterhouse Coopers into the negative cost of mental issues for businesses found that upskilling your people is shown to equate to a direct return on investment of 230%.

What can businesses do to address workplace exhaustion risk?

Organisations should take a human-centred design approach when developing a curated mental health and wellbeing framework that is data-led and research-informed. 

This means ensuring the business has adequate resources including

  • clear leadership responsibility for employee wellbeing at the board level 
  • identifying which areas of the organisation will be responsible for this
  • budgetary considerations to allow for resources
  • skilled people with mental health risk management knowledge.

Upskilling employees to address workplace exhaustion requires training in mental health terminology and the ability to identify wellbeing related risk hazards in the environment and culture, as well as people in distress and how to respond appropriately.

The award-winning Gallagher Workplace Risk practice offers a mental health and wellbeing training program covering 3 levels of workplace intervention and skills, facilitated by qualified occupational therapists with expertise in workplace mental health. 

“The Gallagher Workplace Risk team has the balance and expertise to assist any organisation to understand their duty of care, manage their risk and to protect their people,” Marsh says. 

“Our safety specialists can assist in surveying workforces and reviewing processes and procedures to enable better management of mental health risk and governance. Our occupational therapists have the capability to support human-centred design for job roles, balancing the cognitive and physical demands of the role.”

We currently provide the following workplace risk wellbeing services to support your business and employee needs:
1.    development of mental health strategies
2.    safety climate surveys for workforce
3.    audits of mental health safety management systems
4.    workforce engagement strategies (i.e. job role assessments, worker capacity assessments)
5.    education and training for mental health self-care strategies and management upskilling.

Benefit from our recognised workplace risk expertise 

The Gallagher Workplace Risk practice is a 3-time iCare CASE Award winner for achieving quantifiable improvements in workplace safety and wellbeing for our clients. 

Further reading


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The Wellbeing-Engagement Paradox of 2020, Gallup US

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Gallagher provides insurance, risk management and benefits consulting services for clients in response to both known and unknown risk exposures. When providing analysis and recommendations regarding potential insurance coverage, potential claims and/or operational strategy in response to national emergencies (including health crises), we do so from an insurance and/or risk management perspective.
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