Digitally-driven remote work options have expanded significantly in the U.S. since the 1980s, but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic rocketed both online work and life experiences to new records.
In her testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, remote work industry thought leader and president of Global Workplace Analytics Kate Lister stated, “The COVID-19 crisis forced over 95% of U.S. office workers to become regular telecommuters practically overnight.” That’s not to mention that schooling, government business, grocery shopping, court hearings, doctor’s appointments and other essential aspects of daily life for 330 million Americans moved online as traditional notions of work-life balance were shown the door.
While it would be easy to assume that American workers telecommuting prior to the start of the global pandemic were better prepared to handle these sudden changes, data illustrates this wasn't true in all cases. A survey of 2,000 U.S. remote workers explored changes to employee routines since the onset of COVID-19 and how workers dealt with those shifts. It found 70% struggled to maintain work-life balance.
Specifically, remote workers experienced stress directed at them from their employers. Sixty-seven percent felt they must be available for their employers around the clock, 65% felt overworked, and 63% believed their employers did not want them to take time off from their jobs.
Factors like those described above — pressure applied by an employer, feeling overwhelmed and being discouraged from taking break — put remote workers at risk for burnout. Remote-enabled company leaders, including executives, managers and human resources personnel, must increase their awareness of these and other remote burnout risk factors, then take steps to evaluate the culture climate of their distributed organizations and implement best practices to help prevent remote employee burnout.
Recognizing and Understanding Burnout in Remote Workers
Burnout is not a medical diagnosis, according to the Mayo Clinic, but rather, “a special type of work-related stress.” This stress is prolonged, meaning burnout is the result of previously unaddressed tense or distressing incidents that have been allowed to fester. Before business leaders can help telecommuting employees overcome or prevent remote burnout, it is critical to understand potential remote burnout causes and their considerable consequences.
Potential Causes of Burnout
Causes of job-related burnout differ among healthcare professionals and organizations. In fact, the severity of burnout symptoms, which may present as cynicism, low energy, impatience, disillusionment and poor concentration, can also be influenced by other underlying conditions, including depression, unique lifestyle factors and family attributes.
This list of potential burnout causes is commonly accepted and can be used by business leaders to help detect remote burnout warning signs and start meaningful conversations with employees.
Remote burnout may result when an employee...
- Does not have control, or perceives a lack of control or influence, over how a job is done.
- Is asked to perform job duties that conflict with their values.
- Lacks support to achieve their manager-assigned or personal goals.
- Feels unable to take time off or is discouraged from seeking a break.
- Is unable to adequately manage or cope with personal life events or pressures that inhibit their productivity and/or negatively affect their ability to meet their deliverables.
- Encounters a toxic work environment in which they feel devalued, bullied, undermined, or micromanaged by colleagues or supervisors.
- Consistently performs well, but their achievements are not recognized within the company.
- Is unclear about the expectations of their job, or the level of authority or autonomy they possess, and does not have any discernible avenues for seeking clarification.
Consequences of Remote Burnout
Burnout stress manifests physically and mentally. Signs of burnout can include fatigue and insomnia, heart disease and high blood pressure, irritability and excessive stress, illness vulnerability, and an increased risk of drug and alcohol misuse and Type 2 diabetes.
Research from Gallup provides evidence of the health consequences experienced by remote workers with increased burnout present since the beginning of COVID-19. Although shifts to fully online work meant that workplace engagement reached new highs during the pandemic, American workers reported that their life evaluations, which measure one’s ability to thrive, dropped to their lowest levels (46.5%) since the Great Recession of 2008 — a 15% drop from pre-pandemic evaluations.
Additionally, Gallup found mental health perceptions have been worse for remote workers compared to their onsite counterparts: “Working from home during COVID-19 is associated with intensified levels of both engagement and negative emotions, like stress and worry.”
Related Article: The Cure for Burnout Is Not Self-Care
3 Business Strategies to Support Remote Employees
When online activity is part of nearly every aspect of life, what can business leaders do to ensure employees have adequate resources and opportunities to pursue holistic wellness and disconnect when appropriate? These three business strategies are designed to support remote employees and, ideally, prevent remote burnout before it begins:
1. Facilitate Flex-Scheduling in the Workplace
A worker’s ability to have more control over their schedule is the No. 1 reason job seekers pursue remote work, yet all remote work is not synonymous with flexible scheduling options. Facilitating flex-scheduling within remote-enabled companies means shrugging off the typical 9-to-5, 40-hour work week requirements in favor of allowing remote workers to perform their duties when it's most convenient and appropriate for their individual lifestyles.
Flex-scheduling focuses on results and performance rather than on routines and inside-the-box thinking that may not translate to effective workflows for every employee. Implementing flex-scheduling options for remote employees would create space for them to not only maximize their productivity, but also thrive within a remote work environment that lessens burnout risk.
2. Provide Unlimited PTO
Unlimited paid time off (UPTO) is an emerging work benefit that is about more than just vacation time or sick leave. It gives employees ample room to breathe. UPTO is a lifeline in high-pressure situations as well as a motivator for employees to perform well in order to reap the reward of an extended break after the completion of a major project. It is also growing in popularity with employers.
The COVID-19 pandemic inspired companies to reevaluate their paid-leave practices. A 2021 Mercer survey on time-off trends, including parental leave, UPTO, and holiday observances, found that the number of companies offering UPTO to at least some employees (20%) rose 6% since 2018.
3. Strengthen Internal Communication
For businesses, one of the direst remote burnout consequences is turnover. A Zenefits study of more than 600 U.S. small businesses sought to understand the impact of poor employee retention. The study found that 63% of businesses consider employee retention more difficult to manage than hiring. It also revealed that 81% of companies classify employee turnover as a “costly problem” within their organizations, equating to spending 20% of a lost employee’s salary to complete the hiring process and replace the worker.
The good news is engaged employees are more likely to avoid burnout and stay in their jobs. To stave off remote burnout, business leaders can deploy these tactics to create a communicative company culture within their businesses:
Meet with employees individually. In addition to conducting team, department or company-wide meetings, hold periodic 1:1 video conferences to help ensure every employee's voice is heard. Private meetings also may inspire introverted remote workers to open up about potential workplace stressors or concerns, especially if pressing problems relate to fellow team members who attend group meetings.
Actively seek feedback. Provide opportunities for employees to complete business evaluation surveys or internal feedback questionnaires to record the pulse of company health, consider ways to improve functionality and engagement within the organization, and prove to employees that their opinions and needs are valued. When employee feedback is used to revise or form new company policies, update employees to let them know how their feedback drove change and initiated progress.
Bolster team bonding while being productive. Remote team collaboration tools like Slack, Basecamp, Google Workspace, Asana and Microsoft Teams create space for employees to synchronously or asynchronously communicate and contribute to projects and conversations. In addition to increasing productivity and reducing the time and frustration of employees waiting for information and updates, these tools allow employees to casually chat, comment and connect with team members beyond work. This both strengthens team building and minimizes the sometimes-isolating effects of remote work which can contribute to remote burnout.
Related Article: Your Digital Workplace Can Be a Cause – and Antidote – to Burnout
Remote Company Leaders Can Set the Pace
Preventing employee burnout starts with good leadership. When leaders are “on” all the time, employees are burdened with the expectation that they too should always be on. If executives, managers and human resources personnel want their employees to feel empowered to communicate their needs, take time off when they feel overwhelmed, and seek self-care and mental health resources to ease stress, then business leaders must embody the work-life balance philosophies they want their employees to model and encourage burnout prevention strategies.
Even in a post-pandemic world that may see some employees return to brick-and-mortar offices, remote work will remain a high-demand employment arrangement businesses can rely on in public health emergencies and use as a competitive advantage to attract top talent, regardless of geography. But remote-enabled companies can only thrive if their employees also thrive. Mitigating and preventing remote employee burnout through education, empathy and effective business strategies designed to promote flexibility, peace of mind and communication is the way forward, benefiting both employees and employers.