The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted the health of 55 percent of the global workforce, according to a survey by Gartner of more than 20,000 employees conducted between January 2020 and March 2021. The 2021 Gartner Workforce Resilience Employee Survey measured the change in workforce health across multiple components of employee well-being, including work-life balance, psychological safety, burnout, collaboration, innovation and responsiveness. Results showed that all segments of the workforce have experienced significant and widespread damage.

“Many leaders have looked at productivity to gauge how employees have done during the pandemic,” says Molly Tipps, senior director, advisor, in the Gartner HR practice. “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.”

Gartner studied workforce health across three main factors: healthy employees, healthy relationships and healthy work environments. Employee health has suffered during the pandemic—85 percent of employees have experienced higher levels of burnout while 40 percent report declines in their work-life balance. Regarding healthy relationships, the disruption of the pandemic has led to 41 percent of employees having lower trust in their teams and 37 percent having lower trust in leadership. As for healthy work environments, in response to the immediate shift in where and how people work, 29 percent of employees have a lower level of change receptivity and 31 percent experienced a lower level of inclusion.

“These impacts to health are both long-term and hard to reverse,” says Piers Hudson, senior director analyst in the Gartner HR practice. “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.”

Despite talent data looking, on average, unchanged, Gartner notes that the pandemic has created both “thriving and diving.” Among the employees surveyed, 30 percent experienced limited or no change to their psychological safety. Another 34 percent experienced a decline in psychological safety, while 36 percent 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.

While human resources seeks to keep employees inspired and connected to the organization, they often focus on corporate culture and a shared mission. Instead, what employees need is a more personal sense of purpose, Gartner finds. When employees believe that their work is personally relevant, there is a 26-percent increase in the likelihood of the organization to sustain workforce health.

Employees also need to feel connected to one another. Fifty-one percent of teams were disrupted due to COVID-19, but Gartner data shows that in times of disruption the connections in immediate working teams matter most. Highly cohesive teams have a 37-percent higher likelihood of sustaining workforce health.

“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,” says Cian O’Morain, director in the Gartner HR practice.

Many organizations attempted to boost resilience by adding employee benefits and/or recognizing and rewarding employees for their work. However, these activities had minimal impact in improving workforce resilience. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, leaders offered employees more autonomy, believing it would improve health by speeding decisions and reducing frustration. “While autonomy can have a positive impact on key elements of workforce health, it is a capability that needs to be built over time,” adds Tipps.

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