The Employee Experience Stress Test

Insights from the world's largest database of employee opinions
Willis Towers Watson
COVID-19's impact on stress and anxiety

In response to the pandemic, business offices closed, and operations seemingly overnight shifted to often quickly designed work-from-home arrangements, but some key workers had to remain at job sites. The response to the pandemic resulted in massive challenges for workers everywhere.

During this global upheaval, many organizations ran pulse surveys to understand the immediate effects of the pandemic. About 150 of our clients used one of our COVID-19 pulse surveys generating responses from 685,000 employees across 134 countries. What was most striking from this feedback was that over half of all employees reported moderate to high levels of anxiety throughout the crisis, with concerns increasing toward the end of the year. Added to that trend were increasing levels of financial worry through the middle of the year. While not affecting everyone, around a quarter of all employees suffered from significant distractions while working from home (typically related to childcare or caring for others).

Our pulse survey respondents also rated employer efforts to manage concerns about COVID-19. In the initial phase of the global pandemic in March and April, 72% had full confidence in leaders to protect employee health and wellbeing, but by the end of the year that number had fallen to 57%. As office reopening efforts emerged, so too did worker concerns about resuming normal operations. In the fourth quarter of 2020, only 41% were fully confident that their work locations were not a health risk, and only 20% reported being not at all worried about health and safety from commuting. As a result, 71% said they would prefer to continue working from home.

Without question, the pandemic significantly impacted the wellbeing of employees, and the effects will be felt for a long time to come, with rising levels of depression and physical illness.

Key Takeaways

About This Report

These employee experience themes reinforce the employer agenda for 2021. Employee worries remain, even as workers express good will for leadership actions. However, the sharp decline to just 43% approval of company ability to manage change serves as a warning that shaping the new world of work and reward will not be easy. As we move into 2021, our findings suggest key challenges that will be critical for the employee experience in 2021 and beyond:

Lead the workforce in ways that emphasize compassion, transparency and dignity. Managing through the pandemic requires empathy and building connection especially with remote workforces. This leadership skill will remain important at least through 2021 and beyond.

Protect employees and build resilience. Employee wellbeing took a hit in 2020. Supporting workers in a world not yet finished with the impacts of the coronavirus is critical to any sustained rebound from the effects of last year. Continuous listening will be necessary to keep a track on the pulse of employees

Reimagine work and Total Rewards. As 2021 unfolds, organizations will fundamentally redefine employee work arrangements. In many companies, virtual working remains the norm. To do work effectively will mean finding ways to drive agile delivery, reskill talent with needed capabilities and apply automation to streamline existing processes. Meanwhile, rewarding effort equitably is no small task as budget were tight in 20201 and the 2021 business outlook remains uncertain.

Introduce an explicit strategy for employee experience. It is time to recognize that employee experience is a driver of performance, not a consequence. Multidisciplinary teams should work across the business and HR, defining aspirational experiences aligned to strategy and putting the transformation center stage.

About the Publisher

Willis Towers Watson (NASDAQ: WLTW) is a leading global advisory, broking and solutions company that helps clients around the world turn risk into a path for growth. With roots dating to 1828, Willis Towers Watson has 45,000 employees serving more than 140 countries and markets. We design and deliver solutions that manage risk, optimize benefits, cultivate talent, and expand the power of capital to protect and strengthen institutions and individuals. Our unique perspective allows us to see the critical intersections between talent, assets and ideas - the dynamic formula that drives business performance. Together, we unlock potential. Learn more at

Publish Date

October 2021