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A pulse on employees’ wellbeing, six months into the pandemic

It’s been over six months since shelter-in-place orders around the world changed work forever. At Microsoft, we’re studying this new world of work closely, so we can stay ahead of the challenges and create technology that meets our customers’ evolving needs. One big question that has emerged: as leaders go from worrying about whether or not people will be “productive” to worrying about if people are working in sustainable ways—how can we help our customers prioritize wellbeing for all their people?

This Work Trend Index report looks at how the pandemic has impacted wellbeing at work globally. We studied how productivity patterns in Microsoft Teams have shifted since early this year and surveyed over 6,000 information and Firstline workers in eight countries including Australia, Brazil, Germany, Japan, India, Singapore, the UK, and the US. The report also includes studies from the Microsoft Research group that shed light on the surprising productivity benefits of our once-dreaded commute.

Inspired by this research and conversations with customers, today at our annual Ignite conference we’re marking the start of a longer journey to evolve our productivity tools to promote individual wellbeing and organizational resilience. We’re kicking off today with a virtual commute in Microsoft Teams that will help you prepare for the day and mindfully disconnect in the evening. We’re also partnering with Headspace to bring a curated set of mindfulness and meditation experiences into Teams. To empower managers and leaders who shape company culture, new insights in Teams will offer windows into how work happens, and the impact on employee wellbeing. And finally, new Teams experiences for Firstline Workers will empower people with the tools they need to do their work, more safely.

With that, let’s dig into our findings.

Key Findings

  1. The pandemic increased burnout at work – in some countries more than others.
  2. Causes of workplace stress differ for Firstline and remote workers.
  3. Six months in there are more communications and fewer boundaries.
  4. No commute may be hurting, not helping, remote worker productivity.
  5. Studies show meditation can fight burnout and stress during the workday.

The pandemic increased burnout at work—in some countries more than others

If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed at work lately, you are not alone. Over 30% of Firstline and information workers in our study said the pandemic has increased their feelings of burnout at work. If there’s one thing our research has shown us, it’s that everyone is experiencing this time differently—we’re all in the same storm, but are weathering it in different boats. For instance, 44% of those in Brazil are feeling more burned out compared to 31% in the US and 10% in Germany. While burnout can be attributed to many factors, the chart below explores how longer workdays impact feelings of burnout. For example, workers in Australia saw the highest increase in workday span in Microsoft Teams1 (45%), with a medium increase in burnout. While workers in Germany saw very little change to workday span or feelings of burnout.

Causes of workplace stress differ for Firstline and remote workers

We asked workers to rank their top contributors to workplace stress from a list of twelve options. The top stressor shared globally was worry about getting COVID-19, followed by lack of separation between work and life, feeling disconnected from co-workers, and unmanageable workload or hours. To understand how stressors differ for Firstline and remote employees, we dug a little deeper. The number one stress for Firstline workers aligned with what we saw globally: worry about getting COVID-19. And this makes sense, our study also found that nearly 30% of workers have not been provided the tech or protective equipment they need to effectively socially distance by their company. Among the stressors reported by remote workers, the lack of separation between work and life and feeling disconnected from coworkers ranked highest.

An image of global workplace stressors, ranked.

Six months in there are more communications and fewer boundaries as workers adjust

Having identified lack of separation between work and life, along with unmanageable work hours, as top workplace stressors, we turned to usage patterns in Teams for more insight. Our data shows even six months past the first work-from-home orders, people are in significantly more meetings, taking more ad hoc calls and managing more incoming chats than they did before the pandemic. After-hours chats, or chats between 5pm and midnight, have also increased. Perhaps more interestingly, the share of Teams users sending those chats after hours has more than doubled. Put another way, there is a whole group of people who never touched a keyboard after 5pm before the pandemic—now, they do.

No commute may be hurting, not helping, remote worker productivity

Those of us who feel especially exhausted after a long day of remote work are far from alone. In our study, one third of remote workers said the lack of separation between work and life is negatively impacting their wellbeing. Studies from our Microsoft Research group help us understand how our once-dreaded commute actually helped maintain work-life boundaries—and our productivity and wellbeing along with them.

“Commutes provide blocks of uninterrupted time for mentally transitioning to and from work, an important aspect of wellbeing and productivity. People will say, ‘I’m happy I don’t have to commute anymore. I’m saving time.’ But without a routine for ramping up for work and then winding down, we’re emotionally exhausted at the end of the day.”

 – Shamsi Iqbal, principal researcher, Microsoft Research

In 2017, a group of Microsoft researchers set out to quantify the productivity benefits of commute time. In the study, a digital assistant used chat conversations to help participants prepare for work at the beginning of the day and wind down from work at the end by asking a series of questions. Some questions were task-based, like: “what do you need to get done today?” Others were emotion-based, meant to help participants reflect, for instance: “how did you feel about the day?” Participants rated their productivity every hour on a scale of 1 to 5, measuring productivity this way for one week using the digital assistant, and one week without. The study found that 6 in 10 people (61%) felt they were more productive when the digital assistant helped them ramp up to and down from work. On average, productivity increased between 12 and 15%.

Because the research showed that some people respond better to emotion-based queries and some task-based, we designed the new virtual commute experience in Teams to suit your preferences. You’ll be able to customize your experience with a set of suggested activities including meditation with Headspace, reflections on your day, or help closing out outstanding tasks from Teams and Outlook.

Studies show meditation can fight burnout and stress during the workday

Of those we surveyed, 7 in 10 people (70%) said meditation could help decrease their work-related stress. This number increased to 83% for those managing childcare or homeschooling. Research backs this up – consistent meditation with Headspace can decrease stress and burnout and improve your ability to react to negative feedback. This is why, in addition to bringing curated meditation and mindfulness experiences with Headspace into our virtual commute experience in Teams, we will offer the ability to schedule ad hoc or recurring time for mindfulness breaks anytime—before a big meeting, say, or when you need to focus on an important project.

As we continue to learn more about wellbeing at work, you’ll see related innovation continue to show up across Microsoft 365 and Teams. For more information on the product updates mentioned in this report visit the Microsoft 365 blog. You can also read this Microsoft Stories feature that shares more on our product strategy and highlights perspective from the engineers, researchers, and experts who contributed to these features.

Privacy approach: Microsoft takes privacy seriously. We remove all personal data and organization-identifying data, such as company name, from the data before using it to produce reports. We never use customer content such as information within an email, chat, document, or meeting to produce reports. Our goal is to discover and share broad workplace trends that are anonymized by aggregating the data broadly from the Microsoft Graph.

1Workday span is the time between a person’s first and last active use of Microsoft Teams, such as sending a chat, editing a document or attending a meeting.