Don't let the pajama bottoms and 2-foot commute fool you — remote working is draining. In fact, the comforts of home may actually contribute to this burnout — particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic when your house is your primary bubble.
Barking dogs and screaming children compete for your attention alongside Zoom calls and Slack messages. Life has blended into a cauldron of interruptions, and our mental health suffers.
"When you work from home, your attention’s split. Your concentration demands more emotional energy,” says Kelcey Stratton, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Michigan Medicine. “By the end of the day, we’re drained.”
Chances are most of your employees suffer from remote work burnout. A recent survey by DigitalOcean found that 82% of remote workers in the U.S. reported feeling fatigued.
So, what can you do to help remote workers cope and restore some work-life balance? Turns out, quite a lot.
Create a flexible remote work environment
More than half of the 1,500 respondents to a survey by FlexJobs and Mental Health America said having flexibility in their workday was the best way a workplace could offer support — better than being given more time off.
But a flexible schedule isn't an automatic byproduct of remote work. Many employees feel obligated to conform to conventional work expectations, including with their schedules.
Offering flexibility during the workday should be a priority that's explicitly stated in your team's handbook.
“Offering flexible scheduling to employees can have a dramatic impact on reducing burnout," says Carol Cochran, VP of People & Culture at FlexJobs. "Rigid work schedules usually magnify conflict between work and family, leading workers to mental exhaustion."
Ease your employees' lives by removing any obstacles that might make them second-guess taking breaks for an hour, a day, or even longer.
Not having a commute is often seen as a perk. But a study published by Blake Ashforth of Arizona State University revealed that activities like commuting create boundaries in our minds. They make it easier for us to transition from “home life” to “work mode" and vice versa.
Remote employees don't have these activities to mark their days. The term “work hours” no longer applies.
Here are a few ideas to recommend to your remote employees so they can create new boundary-crossing activities in their day:
- Start and end your workday with a ritual. Go to a room (other than your home office) and listen to a podcast, or go for a walk.
- Put away your computers and other work materials at the end of the day, especially if you can see your workspace "after work."
- Turn off email and work notifications when you're off the clock. Tip: Have employees share their work schedules so colleagues know when they're available.
Help your team focus on what matters most
Remote workers often work longer hours than their counterparts. A 2020 survey by Blue Jeans found that remote workers work an additional 3.13 hours per day. Those who say they’re significantly more productive work an additional 4.5 hours each day.
Part of the reason for this behavior is because remote employees want to project an appearance of productivity — so they check off to-do lists at lightning speed.
But this leads to focusing on less important tasks, which is counterproductive in the long run. Employees work longer hours for little payoff.
Help your remote employees focus on their most important tasks with this three-step process:
- Goal setting
- Regular meetings
- Right mindset
Employees should have clear goals to focus on (for every quarter, as an example). These goals should be created with their managers.
Goals can be used as the foundation for an employee's daily tasks. For every task they take on, they should ask themselves: does this help me reach my goals, and if so, how?
Schedule weekly 1:1 meetings with managers and their direct reports. These meetings help your managers ensure each employee is focused on the right tasks.
Give employees the tools to identify their most important tasks. One tool is the Eisenhower matrix. The Eisenhower matrix helps you identify which tasks to focus on, which to delegate, which to delay, and which to remove altogether.
Be wary of video meetings
Zoom sure had a moment when the coronavirus hit. Teams loved being able to stay connected with video meetings.
Then Zoom fatigue set in and public opinion shifted.
"30 minutes into your first video meeting in the morning ... you're fatigued," proclaimed Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. He's not alone. CEOs, employees, and everyone in between have grown tired of the Brady Bunch experience of a Zoom call.
Video calls drain our energy because they require more focus than conventional phone calls.
“During video calls, we’re constantly splitting our attention, says Stratton. "We’re not focusing on one person speaking; we’re looking at all these different screens. We’re also monitoring how we look and what’s in our background."
Phone calls, however, let us focus just on someone's voice, freeing our minds to focus on the message.
Your team doesn't need to use video for every call. Change your protocols so that only large group calls require video. And encourage employees to turn off their video on occasion without feeling ostracized for doing so.
Tip: Remote work is most effective when it doesn't try to replicate the office experience. The most successful remote teams communicate asynchronously. They substitute meetings with a detailed email or memo, for example.
In that same FlexJobs /Mental Health America survey, only 21% of the 1,500 respondents said they felt comfortable having an open, productive conversation with HR about overcoming remote work burnout. More than half said their HR departments did not encourage conversations about burnout.
How can you make your workplace more inviting to conversations?.
Check in on your team.
Hold virtual check-in meetings with employees. Focus on well-being and happiness — not work — during these meetings. Don't expect employees to share how they're feeling, however. That doesn't come naturally to many people, particularly in a work setting. Instead, ask questions that give you a glimpse into your employees' mood and mindset.
- What’s the highlight of your day? (Look for signs of loneliness, and encourage socializing or healthy routines)
- What’s most challenging for you in your daily work routine? (Help troubleshoot these issues so your employees feel supported)
- What do you do to recharge each day? (Offer strategies, such as the ones you use)
- What’s one thing we could get for you that would make your work easier or better? (If you don't ask, they likely won't tell)
- How do you manage distractions during the day? Is it a challenge for you? (This helps identify potential issues)
- Do you think you can fully disconnect at the end of the day or when you’re on vacation? What helps you do so? (Identify employees who haven't established clear boundaries — then help them create them)
Virtual coffee breaks.
Tools like Donut make it easy for co-workers to get together casually like they would in the office. At Density, teammates can choose to join our bi-monthly Donut pairing. They'll be randomly matched with a colleague and can chat about anything they want. We also have a #donut-be-strangers Slack channel where teammates can share their Donut experiences.
“At Density, we believe deeply in a sense of team. Donut allows us to step outside our day-to-day circles and get to know one another,” says Jeannine Seidl, Density’s Director of People Operations. “And… what brings people together better than donuts?!”
Encourage mental health screenings.
Your employees may not feel comfortable talking with you or HR. They may not have the tools to verbalize how they're feeling.
Encourage your employees to take a free, confidential (and anonymous) mental health screening test. Add a link to that screening website to your company handbook for easy reference. Then do one better — take a screening test and let your team know you did. This can help destigmatize mental illness.
Helpguide.org is also an incredible online resource to support you and employees with remote work burnout coping strategies.
Help you and your team thrive under this new normal
Some employees relish their remote work setting. Others don't. But COVID-19 forced nearly everyone to work remotely — even if they didn't want to.
As a result, fatigue and burnout are inevitable. Fortunately, you can give your team the tools and support they need to feel productive, fulfilled, and part of something bigger than themselves.
Lastly, don’t forget about yourself. You can’t support others until you support yourself. The more open you are about your own struggles with burnout and how you cope, the more effective of a leader you will be for your remote team.