It was 2 AM and Neil jolted awake with a stiff neck. He had dozed off on his keyboard with his incomplete presentation still staring at him. It was the 3rd time in one week that he had slept at his coffee table/temporary work desk, which was barely a stretch from his bed in his studio apartment. As he made his way back to sleep, he dreaded waking up to another workday, still setting an alarm just in time for his early morning zoom call.
It was 10 AM and Neil had already missed his morning jog for the nth time in a row, sneaked in an excuse of a protein bar for breakfast, finished a pot of coffee, gone through 2 virtual meetings, never-ending email and slack updates, had a heated conversation with a teammate regarding a group task, and still hadn’t caught up with most of his delegated tasks for the week. Neil was constantly stressed and exhausted, had fallen into a cycle of sleeplessness that fed his irritability, had forgotten fresh air or cooked meals, and had developed a habit of procrastinating and delivering subpar results.
Just a few months earlier, however, Neil was a different person – he was mindful of his health and daily habits, had started learning French for fun, always had a smile and tons of insights for his colleagues, did great work, and was always on time. Even when the Covid-19 pandemic enforced a remote work practice, Neil was able to cope with the sudden change, delivering more outcomes than the rest of his team, earning his manager’s recognition because of all the extra work he had piled on to his to-do list, and generally enjoying what he called “the hustle”.
However, as the pandemic and the remote work model stretched on and became a long-term reality, Neil reached his threshold for resilience.
What is burnout?
Burnout, as defined by The World Health Organization, is a serious condition and a workplace syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. The WHO furthers elaborates burnout as being characterized by
- Chronic exhaustion and feelings of energy depletion,
- Alienation from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and
- A feeling of professional inefficacy.
Burnout takes many shades and forms, manifesting as restlessness, resignation, apathy to work and life, inappropriate responses to everyday situations, or can take more stark forms of anger, anxiety, or depression. Its multifaceted and changing nature makes it hard to identify and pre-empt burnout.
However, a growing understanding of the problem has helped us evolve mechanisms to understand the root causes of burnout and how to prevent and address the challenge.
Burnout – an emerging challenge in the remote workplace
For many knowledge workers, remote work used to be a perk, pre-pandemic. It was the opportunity to allocate focus time, balance work with personal life, and served as a mini-break from the routine of office commutes, rushed work environments, and constant office chatter.
However, the mass exodus to remote work enforced by the pandemic was far removed from being a perk. It happened under unnatural and stressful circumstances where the global workforce shifted to remote work overnight, with most employees ill-equipped to work from home. Added to this were the social, economic, and health concerns of the pandemic, with many employees juggling between caring for family, loneliness, staggering job insecurity, health frights, and a resurgent and sharp display of socio-economic inequalities.
In this new workplace, far removed from routine and normal, employees fell into silos, managers were grappling without data or factual knowledge of how to lead in unprecedented circumstances, and whole teams adopted unsustainable and ad-hoc measures to keep work churning. This stressful environment festered an endemic challenge of burnout that is caused by many factors of remote working:
The overnight shift to staying-at-home upended both the professional and personal lives of workers. Employees had to adapt whatever available infrastructure they already had in their homes to suit their work lives. Even when institutional support in the form of equipment allowances was being provided in some companies, workers still had to manage space allocation within their homes, while managing familial and personal expectations. Employees were all “stuck at home” with either family and home chores piling on one end of the spectrum or grappling with loneliness and isolation.
Lack of visibility
Employees have always counted on their efforts being rewarded since their peers and managers could easily see their contributions. However, in the new remote work setting, employees struggled with the anxiety of making their work visible since it is imperative to boost performance just to get their work and effort noticed and acknowledged. This problem of visibility led to remote workers overworking, taking on more tasks, working at late hours, and rarely taking breaks, just so their peers and leaders could see that they were present.
Millennials and Gen Z are suffering from burnout more than the other generations of the workforce. This could be primarily because of their digitally native environment where these generations do not unplug from their digital world, almost ever. There is a prevalent culture of staying “always-on” in remote work, partially because employees perceive staying present as a way to stay visible, and also because of the realities of globally distributed teams working in different time timezones and forcing people to work odd hours to accommodate their teams in different parts of the world.
The lack of preparation for remote work resulted in poor workload management along with underdeveloped processes that rely solely on synchronous work forcing an overload of sync meetings on employees. The fatigue from virtual meetings, combined with a lack of digital unplugging has led to skyrocketing burnout in the remote workplace.
As remote work stretched on, companies rushed to adopt stop-gap solutions by overloading teams with productivity tools, workplace facilitating tools, and other IT infrastructure. However, the lack of insight into usage, adoption, ease of use, process flows, and success patterns led to the problem of app fatigue, leading to 43% of employees complaining of frustration and inefficiency in using workplace technology, according to a Harmon.ie survey. Constant context switching, lack of focus time, and poor implementation of IT infrastructure added to the stress and exhaustion that leads to burnout.
Job security stress
As businesses struggled to cope with the economic realities of the pandemic, workers became increasingly stressed about their job security, with anxiety skyrocketing. As more people turned to panic working, it led to workers losing their connection to reality. As Professor of organizational behavior, Gianpiero Petriglieri explains, “Workers became numb. Eventually, they fall apart because they have tried too hard to keep themselves together.”
How can managers and leaders help?
As the model of remote work is being adopted as a long-term practice, even in a post-pandemic world, leaders and managers have the responsibility of protecting their teams from burnout. Here are some guidelines on how leaders can help their teams:
Rely on factual visibility
Your team’s performance is dependent on your ability to build an environment of factual visibility. Such a culture allows your team members to self-evaluate their performance, seek support from their peers, and collaborate towards shared goals without worrying about showcasing presenteeism.
As a leader, communicate and sincerely uphold fair and transparent performance assessment and management practices. Stay aware of your personal or organizational biases and create a process centered on data-driven decision-making. Set clear goals, communicate strategies and evaluation criteria, allow conversation and questions, and ensure data-facilitated performance management. When employees believe in fair leadership processes, they become more trusting of their work to be recognized.
As an organization, come together to recognize accomplishments and celebrate the small wins of individuals, both personal and professional. Encourage your colleagues to build each other up. Teamwork and team spirit can inspire great work without the stress of overwork.
Data-driven workload management
A data-driven approach to workload management can help employees balance work and personal life. Insights into how teams are handling workloads, collaborating and communicating, and digitally plugging in, etc, can help allocate manageable and reasonable workloads that can accommodate other aspects of life. A factual viewpoint into quiet days, that is, days without after-work calls, an early indicator of anomalies such as missed deadlines, or an alert to burnout metrics can help managers take preemptive steps to avoid burnout.
Facilitate asynchronous work
Asynchronous work allows employees to work on tasks and projects without restricting when or where they work from. This allows employees to maximize their outcomes by working when they feel most productive while allowing them the flexibility to prioritize other aspects of life at other times. Async work, in addition to its numerous work benefits, also promotes better work-life balance since it allows employees to make time for themselves, their families, their health, and their well-being.
As a leader, keep your (virtual) doors open. Be accessible, empathetic, and reliable, and when you connect with your team, connect authentically. Remember that remote interactions are intention-driven – they need consistent and inclusive communication. A well-structured 1:1 meeting can go a long way in building resilient teams.
Give data-driven, structured, relevant, and useful feedback, show empathy while checking in regarding employees’ mental well-being, and display sincerity in your efforts. Allow for your team to absorb your input while staying open to receiving feedback and ideas. The process will align your team within a framework of mindfulness and allow the one-on-one conversation about strategic efforts to better well-being in the team.
Work-life balance, from the top down
Encourage your teams to find harmony in the workplace by staying socially connected, highlighting the importance of healthy living habits, encouraging periods of digital disconnect, vacations, breaks, while also stressing the importance of focus work as a path to productive work. Finding the balance between professional and personal life should stem from a company’s culture that usually trickles down from leaders embodying these habits.
Purpose-led team culture
Facilitate and encourage conversations about employee goals, purposes, and priorities. Find ways to connect individual priorities to team goals and visions. This will help employees to feel connected to their jobs with more long-term commitments and horizons rather than short-term motivators.
Burnout has a long-lasting effect on the ethos of a team. It is important that leaders step in to create an environment that focuses on performance outcomes while supporting and prioritizing workers’ engagement and wellbeing. An interesting development on this front has been the use of data to support practices of well-being in the remote workplace. It is encouraging to witness the modern workplace evolving with data-driven practices that embody fairness, connectedness, and transparency. This will go a long way in building resilient organizations that can reset, relearn, and reimagine a new normal for the future of work.
💡 Hatica’s work analytics platform identifies imbalance in work allocation, patterns of cognitive overload and a lack of quiet days, and other burnout signals in your engineering teams and provides data-driven visibility for managers to take action.