Is Remote Worker Burnout Charring Your Staff?

Remote work may have been a bonus at the beginning of the pandemic, but employees are beginning to burn out under the arrangement.

Remote working used to be a perk. Now, employees feel burned out because of this work arrangement. How could a highly desired bonus turn into such a stressful situation?

Coffee Laptop Remote Work

Previously, staff members who were on the road, had urgent deadlines, or worked in a heads-down IT role, could work remotely. Occasional in-office workdays complemented remote arrangements so they could stay connected to managers and peers. However, COVID presented safety issues for nearly all workers. Transitioning to full-time remote work became a necessity for many office workers.

But in pre-COVID times, an underlying pressure existed to be available for work after hours. It was not unusual for employees to receive a text at 10 pm that required an immediate reply or spend a Sunday evening answering emails. Workers at all levels were expected to be “on” in case of an urgent work request. This urgency also dissuaded employees from using their PTO. Climbing the corporate ladder required full-time availability.

According to Vanessa Bohns, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at Cornell University, these factors created the perfect storm for remote employee burnout. Over the past year, remote workers have worked longer hours and continued to prioritize work over home life, blurring the lines between their personal and professional lives and resulting in burnout.

Connection and culture keys to alleviating burnout

What is Employee Burnout?

Pandemic fatigue is real. It comes from the monotony of a routine daily schedule with no time off to travel, enjoy the scenery, and visit loved ones. Without a clear boundary between home and work, it is easy for remote work to increase stress levels that lead to burnout.

A Kaiser Family Foundation study reported that nearly half of people who work from home report increased stress, anxiety, and depression, with many reporting that these symptoms increased after they started working remotely. The pandemic has been particularly stressful for women. Women have shouldered increased responsibilities for family care and education but do not feel supported by their employers. As a result, women are exiting the workforce in droves, with over three million women leaving the US workforce in 2020.

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Surveys indicate that video calls have increased 50% in the last year, with many workers feel trapped at home. Without a clear boundary between home and work, employees work later into the evening and have difficulty separating work from home life. Add the interruptions of remote working spouses, educating children, and dealing with home responsibilities, and the stressors continue to mount.

Half of remote workers feel they do not have the emotional support they need. Nearly 40% of workers indicate they experienced burnout during the pandemic, with 65% indicated they work more hours from home than in the office. Workplace stress is affecting employees’ mental health, leading to depression or anxiety.

Employers can be on the lookout for burnout symptoms, including the inability to complete tasks on time or losing track of tasks and time commitments. Physical symptoms can include mood swings, insomnia, increased drinking, headaches, or dizziness.

The pandemic amplified existing stressors that are now manifesting in physical, emotional, and mental health issues. Employers can help remote workers alleviate these stressors and look forward to a post-pandemic future.

How Employers Can Help with Remote-Worker Burnout

One of the biggest challenges employers face is adapting their corporate culture to the pandemic’s changes. Employers have increased responsibilities to keep employees safe, secure, and supported no matter what type of work arrangement they have.

What are the rules for this new culture?

Building long-lasting relationships are the foundation of the corporate culture. The old rituals of meeting in the break room, daily standup meetings, or impromptu office celebrations were ways of connecting with employees. However, employers need to create new rituals and support systems for today’s remote culture.

Experts recommend accepting that the old office-centric culture model is outdated. It is no longer about incremental attempts or baby steps but setting a clear, new direction based on a remote-first culture. Employees look to leaders to set the tone and model desired behaviors that must be demonstrated and communicated in new ways. Frequent communication is essential, often through video or town hall meetings, followed by assessing what is working and what is not.

Seem difficult? IBM’s HR Leader described their cultural evolution based on being “a little more human.” The pandemic allowed us into each other’s homes, seeing their personal lives and families. IBM continues to experiment with how to embed “being more human” into their culture for the long-term, whether it is a remote, on-site, or hybrid workplace. A human approach may help employers understand that employees cannot always be “on” and demand their attention 24/7.

Flexible Schedules May be the Key to Preventing Remote Employee Burnout

The Future Forum developed the Remote Employee Experience Index to understand what remote workers need to thrive. They created the “5 key elements of the working experience” that employers can use to guide their cultural policies.

The Five Key Elements of the Working Experience
Productivity Completing tasks efficiently and delivering high-quality work.
Work-life balance Balancing the fluidity between work and personal priorities.
Managing work-related stress and anxiety Managing pressures and worries in a virtual workplace.
Sense of belonging Measuring the degree to which remote workers feel accepted and valued by their team.
Satisfaction with a working arrangement Understanding the perception of the remote work infrastructure and support employers provide.

Remote workers indicated that they were satisfied with four of these five attributes. However, a “sense of belonging” was the only area where employees weren’t happy.

For example, DropBox implemented a flexible schedule that asks employees to be available for a structured 4-hour daily time frame but allows them to schedule the remainder of their work that fits their schedule. This approach ensures that workers are productive while helping them meet their personal commitments.

Supporting Remote Workers

Here are examples of how companies are implementing new structures to help employees cope with remote work challenges.

How Companies Are Supporting Remote Workers
Infosys They announced early that employees’ jobs were safe and that there would be no workforce reductions tied to company performance, promoting their concern for employee welfare. At the beginning of the pandemic, they arranged charter flights for employees and their families who were stranded outside their home country.
IBM They initiated the “Work from Home Pledge” that outlined how employees should support each other, be sensitive to the need for family time, and stay socially connected. Through Slack, employees volunteered to pick up groceries and run errands for coworkers.
Slack Adding 25% to their workforce since March 2020, Slack transitioned onboarding to online, including video discussions of cultural norms and interactive sessions with leaders and teammates.

Employers must now focus on communication, implementing new ways for employees to connect with teammates, managers, and senior leaders. Digital enablement tools, from Zoom to Teams, help keep remote workers connected and supported.

Mental health issues have skyrocketed during the pandemic for all employees. New apps and services help employees and their families get the help they need to alleviate ongoing stressors. Employers are the lifeline for healthcare access for employees who are experiencing remote working burnout.

Will Remote Work Continue?

Employers still have a responsibility to keep workers safe, especially if they return to the office. Different factors influence returning to an in-office setting, including employee vaccinations, social distancing protocols, and an employee willingness to return to the office. In high-rent cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, there is a less than 20% office occupancy rate, indicating that employers and employees are still on the fence about returning to an office environment.

A growing number of companies, including Salesforce, are transitioning to a hybrid office model of three days in the office and two days at home, fully remote, and 100% office positions. Microsoft and Siemens will focus on 50% office attendance. Other companies like Amazon, Facebook (who will allow 50% of positions to work remotely forever), and Capital One will delay their decision until later in 2021.

Hybrid schedules may alleviate the loneliness that remote workers feel and create the sense of belonging that could reduce remote worker burnout. In the meantime, employers are deciding what type of schedule is the best fit for their culture and employees.

As employers adapt to the changing demands of the pandemic, they are focusing on their most important asset––their people. Employee benefits for remote workers are expanding with easy-to-implement solutions that support your workforce. For more information, reach out to Woodruff Sawyer's Benefits experts and subscribe to get their latest insights into benefits and HR issues important to employers.


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