How to address silent burnout among frontline workers 

The new year sees many people take on new habits or ways of life. They want to get fit, or take a round-the-world trip, or maybe they want to go for a promotion at work or get a new job. In some cases, these resolutions stick, but others fall by the wayside within a matter of weeks. 

Often, people use the last month of the year to think about what they want to achieve, but what if their job doesn’t give them the time to slow down and reflect in December?

That's the reality for many frontline workers who represent 80% of the total global workforce. Rather than enjoying a relaxing Christmas break, many of these employees have been enduring the busiest period of the year. It’s a time of increased workloads and extra shifts as well as added stresses, particularly in pressurised sectors such as retail, hospitality, transport or healthcare.

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This cohort consistently exhibits far higher levels of burnout than the wider workforce at the start of each new calendar year. For example, our data already reveals a 40% drop in enthusiasm and engagement levels among UK frontline workers during January 2024, compared with December 2023. Ongoing interactions through internal channels such as message boards and group chats have massively declined as frontline employees have withdrawn from day-to-day organisational culture.

This pattern of behaviour is part of a growing problem called 'silent burnout'. It occurs when workers feel undervalued and unsupported in their roles with many reluctant to ask their employer for help through fear it will amount to nothing. This leads to them checking out before many employers have even realised there is an issue. This year’s data is consistent with the pattern we’ve identified over the past five years. Frontline employee engagement sinks dramatically at the start of each new year before the churn rate increases in the months following.

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And for HR professionals, this creates a problem that businesses will inevitably look to us to solve. So what can we do about it?

Of course, no HR leader wants to partner with a frontline workforce that feels undervalued and unsupported at work, so swift action is needed to understand and re-engage these employees, and prevent it happening again.

Step one is all about communication, fostering an environment where communication is not only encouraged but made easy and accessible for those who aren’t based at a desk full-time, is crucial. For this to have a true impact, there needs to be two-way communication and a pathway to effective action. 

Step two is recognition, which could be implementing programmes that acknowledge the hard work and dedication of frontline staff, providing they go beyond lip service and deliver tangible recognition, rewards and benefits.

How HR can spot signs of burnout

And step three is to use data to proactively identify employees at risk of quitting. Overworked and disengaged frontline team members don’t always recognise the extent to which they’re unhappy, let alone share it with others. Employers should monitor workloads and look for signs of burnout among those who have taken on high numbers of shifts. There are lots of ways to effectively do this but, with a diverse deskless workforce, technology is playing a bigger role than ever in spotting trends and identifying potential silent burnout cases earlier or, even better, preventing it in the first place. 

Statistics tell us that the UK workforce is approaching maximum 'work sickness' – the point of the year when staff absences peak – and for organisations with a high proportion of frontline workers, this is an even bigger risk. Open roles, and therefore unfilled shifts, are at an all-time high, and anything that further contributes to attrition and absenteeism is going to have an even bigger impact. 

This isn’t easy, and isn’t something that HR will solve alone. But in the spirit of being true partners to the business, these are topics that HR leaders need to be thinking about, and putting in place actions to engage and support their frontline teams.

By Simon White, chief people officer at Blink