Remote work has been growing in popularity for years, but the trend is now becoming common practice with the COVID-19 pandemic making it a safer alternative for companies to continue to do business. Especially valued by younger employees, remote work offers greater flexibility when it comes to schedules and location. It is fueled the rise of “digital nomads” that work remotely while traveling regularly; even with pandemic-related travel bans, the number of digital nomads in the US has grown by 49% since last year alone. It has also allowed working parents, left without childcare or in-person schooling options due to pandemic restrictions, an opportunity to hold onto their jobs amidst added family responsibilities. Companies also benefit from spending less on office space leases, on-site resources, and equipment.
Despite the benefits, this year’s abrupt and widespread move towards virtual and at-home work came with some growing pains. Employees suddenly had to adjust schedules around household distractions, create their own dedicated workspace, and cease regular in-person communication with coworkers. In the process, many people have struggled to maintain similar levels of productivity as they did in an office setting.
According to a new report by Owl Labs, a video conferencing technology company, full-time employees are working an extra 26 hours on average every month, or roughly one extra day each week. Naturally, this significant increase in time spent working carries with it a greater risk for employee burnout. Additionally, in a separate report from the employment platform Monster, about two-thirds of employees say they feel burned out. This percentage may continue to grow as remote work becomes a permanent feature for many jobs and industries.
Many employees find themselves compensating for at-home distractions by putting in longer hours. It can be challenging to “turn off” from job tasks and separate work hours and personal time, especially when technology facilitates constant and ever-present communication. For some, the time they save commuting may also be replaced with work instead of personal tasks. Additionally, pandemic restrictions have fueled isolation and limited opportunities for social and other non-work activities.
The Cost Of Burnout
Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially listed burnout as a mental health concern in their International Classification of Diseases, a diagnostic tool for providers. It is defined as a constant state of exhaustion—mental and physical—due to prolonged stress. The long-term health consequences include mental and emotional conditions like depression and anxiety, as well as physical ailments like heart disease and diabetes. According to Harvard Business School, these negative impacts on employee wellness cost employers between $125 and $190 billion in associated healthcare spending. Of course, the overall costs are likely much greater when accounting for the decrease in productivity and performance due to poor employee health.
How To Avoid Employee Stress, Exhaustion
Be aware of the signs of burnout. These include a shortened attention span, irritability, sickness, and a decreased engagement. Employees may no longer take part in team-building activities or be as communicative with coworkers. These symptoms are certainly easier to witness in person, which is why managers need to be particularly attentive to burnout risk when employees are working remotely. If managers are unsure if an employee is burning out, he or she should proactively engage in a conversation about the topic with the employee, making it clear that they and the company want to be resources to prevent this from happening. Having leadership announce the importance of avoiding burnout and resources the company offers to prevent it also goes a long way. It encourages employees to speak up if the stress of work is becoming too har to bear.
Another way to identify broad-based burnout within a company is through engagement statistics for many popular technologies. For example, management can look at data from chat platforms, such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, to see if employees are sending messages after-hours, which would suggest that the lines between work and personal time are being blurred.
Employers can help decrease the likelihood of burnout with simple adjustments to policies and wellness program offerings. Make sure that managers honor work schedules by prohibiting communication after hours or on weekends. That way, employees will not be tempted to continue working on tasks outside of their normal schedule. Employees may also need more clarity with performance expectations, particularly if some responsibilities have changed since switching to a remote setting. Detail work tasks and address employee concerns if they are experiencing difficulty completing work within their work hours. Educate employees about the negative consequences to health and productivity when it comes to burnout and encourage them to take steps to de-stress through wellness activities like exercise and meditation.