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Remote Work Might Be Wearing Down People, but You Can Fix It

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More than a year into the pandemic, many people have felt that, while they’re fortunate to have escaped the worst, their lives are stagnant. Government aid has provided widespread relief, but those who’ve been laid off would probably prefer to have certainty that a good job awaits them soon.

Yet those who’ve retained some normalcy may be suffering even worse. They may have kept their jobs by working from home, but these working arrangements aren’t the same.

And if you’re in charge of those remote workers, they may be far closer to burnout than you realize.

A different challenge

Before the pandemic, remote work had mostly been the preserve of employees in the tech sector or forward-thinking startups. It boasted schedule flexibility and diverse lifestyle options. Living like a digital nomad, your office could be at home with your family or anywhere in the world with an internet connection.

Thus, in the spring of 2020, when most people experienced their first taste of life under lockdown, the prospect of jobs going remote was a small silver lining.

Yet as work shifted online, managers were alerted to the fact that their people might not be performing as effectively.

The technology was there, but communication was awkward. Employees were discovering that the home environment lacked the structure and well-planned design of a traditional office. And parents were shouldering the added burden of helping their kids with distance learning.

Months later, the results remained mixed. We now have far better tools to enable collaboration across distributed teams. But for a lot of people, the early excitement has blended with anxiety.

Surprisingly, older workers have adjusted well to the transition. Their digital skills might have been lacking initially, but they had all the intangibles in place. The younger generations have to worry about a lack of professional growth and the negative impacts of missing informal, face-to-face office interactions.

The unique circumstances of the pandemic have made stress and uncertainty commonplace. But studies show that the nature of remote work isn’t helping, either.

Fully remote workers experience more burnout than on-site counterparts, even before 2020. In fact, on-site workers reported feeling less burnout during the pandemic, whereas for full-time remote employees, burnout rates increased by over 50% on pre-Covid numbers.

Breaking down burnout

The increase in burnout with the advent of Covid-19 and remote work is even more worrisome when you consider it in psychological terms.

The definitive research on burnout was conducted in 1981 by psychologist Christina Maslach. Her Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) uses three criteria to measure burnout: exhaustion, job cynicism, and reduced work efficacy or success.

Using the MBI, the strictest definition of burnout requires that all three criteria are met. This means that psychologically, fewer people are experiencing true burnout. The rest of us are “merely” feeling one or two of tired, disengaged, or stagnant in what we do for a living.

When you consider partial burnout, it’s no surprise that more than two-thirds of employees working from home are self-reporting such symptoms.

tired employee

Not only is remote work a significant challenge for most of us, but we also don’t have any escape. Leisure activities are still limited in many areas, and some establishments never reopened. Moreover, people don’t feel free to take breaks: anxiety about future job retention has typically stopped us from going on vacation.

Time for change

Throughout the pandemic, the refrain of management has been for leaders to provide support and strengthen relationships with their employees. And such interventions have certainly helped, overall.

But there’s a limit on how much support you can provide. Video calls and chat messages remain a distant, asynchronous form of communication. They can’t replace real, in-person interactions, and overdoing it results in too much screen time or Zoom fatigue.

One strategy that’s proven to be effective post-Covid is the hybrid workplace. Gallup polls showed that allowing employees to work from home part-time while still reporting to the office a few days each week results in the lowest burnout levels.

Another option is changing the nature of work rather than targeting employees with interventions. Mandate less work hours. Devote more time towards addressing long-term career concerns, outlining developmental paths, opportunities to learn, anything that can give people a sense of engagement, excitement, or a reason to care.

It may be less palatable for employers to accept that changing their organizations and employees’ workloads is necessary. But if remote work really isn’t going anywhere when the pandemic lifts, we need to make this change before even more of our best people flame out.

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