Remote Work is Increasing Employee Burnout: Three Things Leaders Can Do to Help

Have you been feeling low energy, tired, less motivated at work?  You are not alone.  Post pandemic, professional workers are experiencing another epidemic it seems.  This time it is more closely related to well-being and mental health.

With as much as 60% of the professional working world now in some type of remote or hybrid work situation, the downsides to having fewer boundaries around when we work and how we work are starting to show up. In a recent HBR article called The Future of Flexibility at Work, the authors note that increased isolation can also lead to symptoms of depression and burnout. Studies around interacting virtually are also starting to show that spending too much time in a 2-dimensional (video-based) interaction can create exhaustion, headaches, and decreased attention span, now officially called “virtual burnout” as per the article Is work from home causing a burnout?

Burnout is categorized as an “occupational phenomenon” per International Classification of Diseases under World Health Organization (WHO). According to WHO’s definition, burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions, which are feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.

This is likely one of the big motivations behind people looking for new jobs and the “Great Resignation.”  However, as people are taking on new roles, they are increasingly finding that just changing jobs is not a cure-all.

So, what can leaders do to help their people decrease burnout and increase engagement and thus reduce turnover?

Set Boundaries. We need to recognize that while people want to have flexibility around where they work, “boundaryless” work is unlikely to function well for either the employer or the employee.  As a leader, you can help your employees by discussing and setting up mutually agreeable boundaries around when people are expected to show up for work and when they can power down and take a break. You may also need to set a good example by having clear times when you personally are not taking calls or emails.

Limit Meetings. Meetings have always been prolific but many of our clients have noted that the expectations around having meetings at earlier and later times seems to have increased in the remote world. In the past two years, back-to-back video calls from 7a to 7p with very few breaks have become the norm. To combat this trend, leaders will need to intentionally set up parameters for their organizations around meeting times and frequency. Conversations around when video participation is required may also be helpful. Ideally, there would be less meetings in general and people would feel comfortable attending meetings by phone while enjoying some time outside or in transit without feeling like they are being reproached.

Conduct “Whole Person” 1:1s. People managers also need to add a new component to the traditional performance and development conversations called “whole person” conversations. Understanding the unique needs and situations for each person on your team has become more important as each person is trying to navigate their own balance and boundaries. As a leader, you will need to help people to define what is “flexible” and what is “essential.”  You may also need to help employees feel encouraged to participate in taking time off and paying attention to personal wellness. Many companies now offer an assortment of wellness options from meditation practices to physical training that may help employees build breaks into their day to take care of themselves. However, traditionally employees have shied away from using these options thinking that it may make them seem less productive or less performance-oriented. As a leader, we can both create and model a good example for our teams by participating in these things ourselves and in encouraging others to do the same.

The way in which we work is changing. As we all begin to understand how best to operate in remote and flexible environments, leaders need to build in new parameters to ensure that the workload does not lead to burnout. It will be incumbent on both employees and their managers to define the new set of expectations that allow for productivity, but also for healthy boundaries.