Remote work eliminates stressful commuting and allows employees to tailor their workspaces. But in some cases, working from home may increase an employee’s risk of burnout. Zoom fatigue, childcare, and isolation can sap energy and productivity.
Remote work burnout is an increasing concern. According to research by the global consulting network PwC, the number of employees who worked from home at least one day per week nearly doubled from 39 to 77 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic. During that time, burnout has become one of the largest threats to employee well-being.
But you don’t need to rush back to the office. Burnout may be wearing pajamas and making frequent trips to the fridge these days, but you can still tame it. The first step is learning to recognize burnout in yourself and your employees.
Signs of burnout at work and home
Burnout typically has three dimensions:
- Negative thoughts about work
- Reduced effectiveness at work
People who experience burnout at work may feel irritable, lethargic, unmotivated, anxious, depressed, or some combination of these. Many people have trouble sleeping, too, which exacerbates the problem. And make no mistake: Burnout is a big problem—for employees and employers.
Among burnt-out employees, 22 percent report difficulty concentrating. A Gallup study suggests burnt-out workers feel 13 percent less confident in their job performance. Burnout makes a worker 63 percent more likely to take a sick day and 23 percent more likely to visit an emergency room. And the worst part may be that burnt-out employees are 2.6 times more likely to leave your company.
Employee burnout affects a company’s bottom line, too. For example, one study found that physician burnout costs organizations between $2.6 and $6.3 billion annually. How much of a loss does your company bear?
Clearly, the struggle is real, and it’s probably already affecting your business. Perhaps you recognize some signs of burnout in yourself? We’re here to help. Both employees and employers should attack burnout to put out the fire before it ravages your remote workforce.
How employees can reduce burnout at work
When your office is also your home, it’s challenging to separate work from personal concerns. But if you want to prevent burnout, that’s what you need to do. Draw firm time boundaries between your job and your home life. And find new ways to bake healthy habits into your day now that you have fewer natural opportunities to step away from your workspace. These actions may help.
1. Set a firm work schedule
Responding to a few work emails after dinner or before breakfast may seem harmless, but science suggests failing to draw a firm boundary between work and personal life can be deadly. In a 2013 European study, people who worked after hours had more illnesses, including psychological, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and musculoskeletal ailments. Meanwhile, study participants who limited checking email to only three times daily felt far less stress.
Once you and your team agree on your working hours, stick to them. Instead of letting your inbox, to-do list, or any other part of your job rule your life, close your laptop at the end of your workday. If you don’t change your behavior, your colleagues will continue to expect your availability at all hours.
Let your boss and coworkers know that your decision to set a firm boundary between work and home life benefits the company too. According to a study conducted by Glint, an employee engagement platform, employees who struggle to balance their work and personal lives are 4.4 times more likely to burn out. Plus, when employees put work away for a while, they return the next day more refreshed and productive.
2. Get moving
Between walking through the parking lot, climbing the stairs, and strolling to a café for lunch, office work can encourage some activity. New remote workers often struggle to get the exercise they need to stay healthy and energized. Before the pandemic, 35 percent of workers exercised between four and seven days per week, while 31 percent exercised rarely or never. A month after most office workers shifted to working at home, just 28 percent of workers exercised regularly, while a whopping 40 percent didn’t.
It’s not difficult to get the exercise you need. Even a 30-minute walk during a break can get your creative juices flowing and your heart rate up—and it may be enough to replace the walking you’d do at the office.
If you have trouble baking enough movement into your day, consider getting a sports watch or other wearable technology to track your steps and remind you to move. If you can’t go for a walk, stock up on fitness gear such as resistance bands or a stability ball to use at your desk. Ideally, take breaks throughout the day, but in a pinch, at least do a few stretches or some light strength training.
3. Prioritize sleep and other self-care
The average pre-pandemic commute time in the U.S. was 26.1 minutes each way. Now that you’re working from home, you may have an extra hour or more in your day, but don’t exchange car time for desk time. Use those hours for self-care to balance out the stresses of an uncertain world.
Self-care can mean taking plenty of breaks, getting enough exercising, and clearing your mind with meditation or yoga. But it also means getting plenty of rest. According to Matthew Walker, author of Why We Sleep, after just one night of insufficient sleep, people average 40 percent lower ability to learn and retain new information. They’re also 60 percent less able to make logical decisions that aren’t driven by emotions. Unfortunately, in an April 2020 survey, less than 40 percent of employees reported getting enough sleep, and more than one third of employees reported that they often have little energy or feel tired.
Now that your bed is down the hall from your workspace, why not use your commute time to sleep in? If you’re already getting eight hours of sleep per night, consider using your usual commuting time to stretch, meditate, plant a garden, or do another enjoyable, stress-relieving activity.
How employers can reduce burnout at work
While remote employees can help prevent work burnout, managers need to be on board too.
According to a study by Gallup, five main factors cause worker burnout. Employees are more likely to feel burnt out when they:
- Perceive they’re treated unfairly
- Feel overwhelmed with an unmanageable workload
- Don’t understand their role
- Lack support from their manager
- Have unreasonable deadlines
Luckily, managers don’t need to juggle five strategies for solving these issues. Overcommunicating and rebalancing workloads tackle most of them.
Remember, your staff may be dealing with uncertainty or depression for non-work-related reasons as well. To help combat low spirits and loneliness, managers can help foster community among their teams with these strategies.
When you don’t see your team in person each day, communication is hard, but it’s even more important. According to the Glint study, employees with managers who don’t communicate effectively are 2.7 times more likely to burn out, and burnt-out employees are half as likely to discuss performance goals with their manager. A manager’s poor communication can lead to a silent, motivation-killing downward spiral.
But there’s a way around this problem. As a team leader, it’s up to you to insist on regular communication. Schedule daily group standup calls and regular one-on-one video meetings with each of your employees. Encourage teammates to meet among themselves as well.
Meanwhile, make your expectations for productivity crystal clear. If your company has flexible deadlines or work hours, ensure everyone understands any related limitations. Create a clear hierarchy of project priorities, and specify which tasks must be completed and by when. If you have overachievers on your staff, make a list of should-be-done tasks to tack onto empty to-do lists.
Finally, be clear that you expect your employees to set comfortable boundaries between their jobs and personal lives. Let them know you don’t expect an immediate answer to late-night emails and you don’t expect them to be available for last-minute video calls.
2. Rebalance workloads
Nearly half (44 percent) of employees report feeling emotionally drained at the end of their workdays. For Generation Z workers, that statistic is 51 percent, but for Baby Boomers, it’s 24 percent. How spent your staff feels will vary according to a staff member’s home situation, isolation level, and more.
If some of your employees struggle more than others while working from home, move some work onto other teammates’ plates or take an extra helping yourself. Encourage your team to lean on each other, ask for help when needed, and be as flexible as possible around deadlines. Once everyone adjusts to working remotely, you can reallocate workloads or hire someone to pick up any lingering slack.
3. Foster community
Most people feel at least a little isolated when working from home. Employees who are new to remote work or work at home when their team works in an office may struggle the most. The extroverts on your team may feel especially burnt out from a lack of in-person interaction. Many employees (between 22 and 35 percent) experienced symptoms of depression after pandemic lockdowns began.
You may feel powerless to help your staff, but you’re not. One in 10 employees with depression-related symptoms reaches out to colleagues for help. Make reaching out easier by encouraging your team to create more camaraderie. Hold virtual happy hours and coffee breaks to foster community. And at the beginning of official meetings, schedule time for a few minutes of casual chatting before you get down to business.
Identify, prevent, and reduce remote work burnout
Burnout at work isn’t a new phenomenon, but it’s a particular challenge for remote workers due to isolation and the lack of separation between work and home life. But burnout is much easier to prevent than to recover from, so employers and employees must learn how to identify burnout signs. Nip this workforce problem in the bud to reduce absenteeism, prevent turnover, and boost your bottom line.