2020 will be remembered for a lot of things when it’s all over, but perhaps the biggest is COVID-19 and, for many, The Year of Remote Work. What came with that, oftentimes? The Year of Remote Work Burnout.
Pre-2020 there was a certain cadence to the week in offices, and a defined line between your “work” place and your “home” place. Those lines blurred for millions this year, and remote work burnout became normative.
You might contextualize it as “Zoom Fatigue” or “I can’t remember the last time I left my house,” but burnout has devastating consequences for mental health and productivity — and it’s affecting up to 82% of remote tech workers. It’s clear that it deserves our immediate attention.
Above all, remember this: remote work burnout is largely not a technology issue. You won’t fix it by pivoting from Zoom to Meet, or using SMS more. It’s a people issue, which means it’s a leadership issue. Leaders need to create space for breaks and reflection, and take their foot off the meeting gas from time-to-time. This is about understanding gives your team energy, and what drains them of it.
And now: an investigation into remote work burnout and some ways top companies are starting to address it.
16 Stats on Remote Work Burnout:
Remote workers are more stressed
- A study by the United Nations revealed that 41% of remote workers report high stress levels.
- Only 25% of in-office workers report high stress levels, suggesting the stress is directly related to aspects of the remote work environment.
Remote workers feel compelled to ‘hustle harder’
- A 2019 study by Digital Ocean found that 82% of remote tech workers in the U.S. felt burnt out.
- 52% reporting that they work longer hours than those in the office.
- 40% feeling as though they needed to contribute more than their in-office colleagues.
Digital Ocean, 2019
Remote workers work more
- Full-time remote workers say they’re happy in their job 22% more than people who work on-site.
- They love it so much that 55% of remote workers said they’d look for another job if they were no longer allowed to work remotely.
- So, what’s the catch? 53% of remote workers say they work more than 40 hours/wk, potentially contributing to burnout.
Email drives burnout
- Researchers found that senders of after-hours work emails underestimate how compelled receivers feel to respond right away, even when they’re not urgent.
- COVID-19 and increased remote work have amplified this problem, as researchers found that workers have an increasingly hard time compartmentalizing their work and non-work lives.
Cornell & London Business School, 2020
Burnout doubled in 2020 (due to work-life balance struggles)
- Employee survey comments around burnout doubled from March 2020 (pre-lockdown) to April 2020 (during lockdown, working remotely), increasing from 2.7% to 5.4%.
- This suggests burnout is a growing threat to the productivity and engagement of today’s workforce.
- The study found that who struggle with balancing home and work are 4.4x more likely to exhibit signs of burnout.
Glint People Science, 2020
Social issues are draining (for some)
- It’s not all bad: 91% of workers said remote working is a good fit for them. However, the top challenges were:
- #1: Communication — 27% said it’s difficult to read body language, or ask clarifying questions.
- #2: Lack of social opportunities — 16% said they missed office culture & grabbing drinks with coworkers.
- #3: Loneliness and isolation — 13% said sitting home alone eventually left them sapped of energy.
Obliterated work-life balance
- Owl Labs found that remote workers were 43% more likely to exceed a 40-hour work week compared with non-remote workers.
- “If you’re not careful, your employees could burn out, especially during the pandemic, when many of them are also full-time caregivers and part-time homeschool teachers for their children.”
Owl Labs, 2020
The “always on” work culture
- 45% of workers said they were burned out” after working from home due to a lack of work-life balance.
- “America’s always-on work culture has reached new heights. Whatever boundaries remained between work and life have almost entirely disappeared.”
Eagle Hill Consulting, 2020
The loneliness problem
- The 2016 General Social Survey found that increased loneliness during remote work correlates with burnout.
- This isn’t a problem for everyone, but a substantial percent of remote workers struggle with it.
- A survey by Buffer found that 21% of workers believe loneliness is the top challenge when working remotely.
University of Chicago, 2016 // Buffer, 2018
Source: https://hrdailyadvisor.blr.com/2018/04/09/link-loneliness-burnout-work/ & https://buffer.com/resources/state-remote-work-2018/#benefits
Lack of recognition
- A survey shows 35% of remote tech professionals feel “very burnt out.”
- 36% of those people say their principle reason for feeling burnt out is because of a lack of recognition.
- This aligns with DigitalOcean’s findings that tech pros don’t feel in sync with a company’s culture when working from home.
Remote co-worker relationships
- Liking your co-workers was positively linked to teleworkers’ informal communication satisfaction, as well as their organizational commitment and job satisfaction.
- Complaining at work was negatively related to teleworkers’ commitment and satisfaction.
- Liking your co-workers moderated the effect of teleworkers’ complaining talk on organizational commitment, but not job satisfaction.
- In other words: you can experience remote work burnout because of a lack of close connections and the ability to form “like” bonds with co-workers, which can dampen both how effectively you communicate and your commitment to the organization.
University of Wisconson & Ohio State, 2011
Remote bonding takes longer
- Other studies have established the link between a lack of socialization, loneliness and lack of bonding with coworkers in the development of remote work burnout.
- But with the prevalence of Zoom meetings and virtual happy hours, why are we still feeling lonely?
- A 2013 study published in Cyberpsychology discovered that bonding in a remote world simply takes longer.
- Fortunately, researchers found that remote bonding does happen and can even “reach levels present in face-to-face communication.”
Cyberpsychology Journal, 2013
Gender roles & perceived flexibility
- Research revealed that being female was associated with greater family-to-work conflict and greater stress and burnout, whereas being perceived as ‘flexible’ results in less burnout.
- The addition of life stage variables (such as pregnancy) significantly increased family-to-work conflict and burnout.
- These findings support the idea that traditional gender roles and gender bias contribute to burnout, which is especially significant for women working remotely with children home.
WFD Consulting, 2006
“More likely to feel left out and mistreated”
- This was a study of 1,153 employees, 52% of whom worked remotely about half the week.
- Those who worked from home a portion of the week were more likely to feel left out or mistreated.
- They also felt more challenged to resolve conflict with colleagues.
An intensifying pace of work
- Research on Information and Communications Tech (ICT) used in remote work and the intensification of work and stressful work environments show that ICT use may intensify the pace of work.
- This intensified pace of work due to ICT use has been found to lead to greater employee stress and burnout.
- Research shows that ICT use has negative implications for stress levels that are probably related to work occupying non-working space and times (blurring boundaries).
Remote employers need to find solutions for remote burnout
- Studies from various countries revealed several aspects that contribute to remote worker’s burnout and post arisk to their long term health and well-being:
- Long working hours; work-life interference associated with the blurring of the boundary between paid work and personal life; intensification of work; and isolation.
- Addressing these issues is critical, especially because remote workers seem to be equally or more satisfied with their working conditions as in-office employees.
Should we just go back to the office?
With burnout running rampant among remote workers, you might be wondering if the logical solution is to simply head back to the office.
This is a tempting ‘quick fix’ but one that doesn’t align with the future of work. And going down this path will ultimately hurt staff retention and your ability to attract top talent — 55% of workers say they would leave their job if they were no longer allowed to work remotely.
Interestingly, workers’ top reasons for wanting to work remotely are:
- 91% want a better work-life balance
- 79% want increased productivity / better focus
- 78% less stress
Let’s also consider the fact that full-time remote workers are 22% happier in their job and plan to stay in their job 13% longer than on-site workers, so going back to the office no longer seems like a viable option for most people.
So, what can we do?
It’s up to employers to bridge the gap and find solutions for burnout that will make remote working a sustainable and healthy option for all.
Let’s take a look at how some top companies are dealing with remote burnout:
Advice from top companies:
Embrace the right to disconnect
- The “Right to Disconnect” became a law in France in 2016
- That legislation followed a Sept 2015 report on “info-besity” (essentially information overwhelm) on the working-age (and often child-producing age) population of France.
- In short: they were burnt out, and a swift solution was found.
- In the USA, Vynamic (health care consulting), Pomoma College and several other employers have also banned emails after 7pm on weeknights, and weekends entirely.
Recognize burnout as an illness
- While the WHO has officially recognized workplace burnout as a workplace hazard with negative implications for worker’s mental health and wellbeing, companies struggle to get on board.
- “Organizations typically reward employees who put in longer hours and replace workers who aren’t taking on an increased workload, which is a systematic problem that causes burnout in the first place,” says Dan Schawbel, research director of Future Workplace.
- Countries like France, Denmark and Sweden do recognize burnout syndrome and consider it a legally legitimate reason to take a sick day from work.
- Clear Company says: “The most effective managers of remote employees create approaches and strategies to combat loneliness and depression.”
- They recommend helping employees build healthy habits and set strict boundaries between ‘at work’ and ‘at home’.
- They also recommend building an community where workers can openly share what they’re going through, providing opportunities to connect and showing appreciation to boost morale.
- Check out these 23 remote team building activities and boost your team bonding.
Help your team set boundaries
- The CEO of WhiteSpace at Work says: “One of the most critical challenges is the sense that work never ends. Folks wake up, grab the laptop from the bedside table, and begin a 10-, 12-, 14-hour alternating cycle, flipping from laptop to kids to laptop to food to laptop, until they pass out over the screen and start the pattern again.”
- What can employers do about this? Host a workshop about setting healthy boundaries, and make sure team leaders walk the walk. Even if you encourage your workers to log-off, if you are online 24/7 they’ll feel pressured to follow suit.
Encourage time off
- “We were detecting this kind of Zoom burnout thing that was happening,” Zillow CEO Richard Barton said. “People had really risen to the occasion to get through the really trying period at the beginning”
- Zillow’s HR team and leadership decided to give everyone in the company an extra day off.
- They encouraged each team to take the same day off so no one would feel pressured (or tempted) to respond to an email or attend a Zoom meeting.
- Importantly, the leadership team set the right example by taking a day off themselves.
- Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic, the parent company of WordPress and an all-remote-working company, has noted that people who spend all day in video meetings have a hard time stepping away from those meetings long enough to fetch a cup of coffee or use the bathroom.
- “It seems that in the physical world, it’s more socially acceptable to leave a conference room and use the restroom than it is in the virtual world. People feel like they gotta, gotta, gotta be there.”
- Remind your team to take breaks throughout the day and don’t punish employees who don’t immediately respond to your messages.
Prioritize better — not everything is an emergency
- Arianna Huffington of ThriveGlobal appeared on CNBC to discuss “The New Normal,” remote work burnout, and modern leadership.
- “The first thing that disappears, when we are depleted, is our creativity and our ability to innovate in moments of crisis. Remember, everything may appear urgent, but not everything has the same urgency. … Prioritize between what is truly important for the business, for your employees, and what appears incredibly urgent.”
- To help tackle remote burnout, leaders need to learn how to let go of our ‘urgency’ culture and improve prioritization skills for themselves and their employees.
The costs of ignoring remote work burnout will be huge
- Thomas Koulopoulos is a futurist and the author of 13 books, as well as the founder of Delphi Group.
- Speaking to Forbes, he notes: “Going forward, leaders must recognize that the current medium in which we’re working has a much higher potential for burnout, even higher than hours of commuting. I see people who are new to working virtually who are “on” 24/7 because of this, and they’re complaining about being constantly connected. The costs of this will be huge.”
- The takeaway? Make addressing remote work burnout a priority — ignoring it will have serious repercussions.