NSW and Victoria may be axing their remaining COVID-19 restrictions, but as employers push workers back to the office, they risk alienating burnt-out workers who are increasingly stressed by economic uncertainty – and more anxious than ever.

Although 34 per cent of workers have returned to the office full-time, those workers reported work-life balance declining twice as quickly as that of colleagues still working remotely or on a hybrid basis, according to a Slack-sponsored Future Forum Pulse survey of over 10,000 workers across six countries, including Australia.

Hypocritical managers were more likely to keep working from home despite ordering employees back to the office five days per week – with just 19 per cent of executives working from the office, compared with 35 per cent of employees.

Consequentially, non-executives reported more than twice the level of work-related stress and anxiety – and work-life balance scores 40 per cent worse than those of the executives managing them.

Management inflexibility is feeding employee stress and risks pushing many employees towards the door, warned Deborah Lovich, managing director and senior partner at Future Forum founding partner Boston Consulting Group.

“Employees have clearly proven that they can get the job done while having flexibility in their work lives,” she explained.

“If executives roll back this flexibility—or put off key decisions on the options that employees will have going forward—they’re setting themselves up for a wave of departures.”

Indeed, workers who reported having little or no ability to set their own working hours were 2.6 times more likely to say they were “definitely” going to look for a new job this year – and reported 2.2 times higher work-related stress and anxiety, 1.7 times worse work-life balance, and burnout rates 1.4 times as high as those who can set their own hours.

Those figures – which corroborate recent suggestions that 4 in 10 workers are ready to quit their jobs – suggest that the evolving Great Resignation could be exacerbated by a return to office work that many have argued represents a return to a post-COVID ‘new normal’.

Authorities in Australia’s two most populous states announced this week that they will dramatically ease COVID-19 mandates and isolation requirements in the runup to the expiration of Victoria’s pandemic declaration in July.

Yet with employee stress surging at the prospect of being in the office full-time again, Future Forum executive leader Brian Elliott warned that employers must be upfront with their workers – and support their well-being by preserving some of the autonomy that was forced onto employees over the past two years.

“Leaders need to move away from dictating days in the office and rigid 9-to-5 schedules, and focus instead on aligning their teams around a common purpose and leading by example,” Brian Elliott said in announcing the results.

“Trusting your teams with the flexibility to work where and when works best for them will lead to better business results and happier employees.”

Pre-election jitters or underlying malaise?

The findings come as separate figures suggest that Australian workers are feeling more burnt-out than ever as the pressures of the pandemic are compounded by rising cost-of-living pressures and economic uncertainty due to the current unstable geopolitical environment.

Just 15 per cent of Australian workers believe the economy is secure, according to HR specialist Elmo’s latest quarterly Employee Sentiment Index – down from 30 per cent a year ago.

A third reported feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work they have to do, while 19 per cent said they aren’t working enough hours to keep up with the cost of living.

The confluence of pressures had driven a surge in employee burnout, with 46 per cent of the 1,016 surveyed workers saying they feel burnt out – up sharply from 34 per cent a year ago.

Worryingly for employers, 22 per cent of respondents said they expect to leave their current role this year, while 34 per cent expect to leave their current employer within the next 18 months.

The clock is ticking for employers that need to find a way to make the new working environment more amenable for overstressed employees, with Elmo CEO Danny Lessem warning that “employers aren’t likely to experience any reprieve from the pressures of the Great Resignation”.

“Poor perceived economic security… is a big challenge for employers as burnt out workers are not productive workers,” he said, calling the new findings “a reminder that the workplace of tomorrow is very different to the workplace of today”.

“Employers need to adapt to the needs of their workforce if they are going to remain competitive.”