The pandemic has forced employers and employees into work situations they never imagined with the widespread use of remote work as a means of continuing business operations in the face of Executive Orders precluding the performance of on-site work. Many employees relished the thought of escaping the ever-watchful eyes of supervisors and even co-workers and the opportunity to work from the comfort of their homes. So, how has the initial enthusiasm aged as the weeks of remote work are turning into months?

The Thrill is Gone

That initial embrace of at-home work is losing its luster as the pandemic continues and employees contemplate a long-term future of working at home. Surveys show that 51% of employees report stress and burnout as a result of working at home.

What is Responsible for the Burnout?

The most often cited reasons for burnout are surprisingly the very things that made remote work seem attractive to employees.  Some dress in their comfortable sweats because they are not seeing anyone but then find the relaxed comfort makes it hard to fully engage because their clothing signals fun while their list of tasks is anything but fun. While remote work seemed liberating to those who had never performed it, many employees soon realized that they rely upon supervision and structure to manage their workday. Without it, many have found it hard to be as productive at home as at the workplace and are stressed at being unable to complete tasks in a timely manner

There are other stressors as well. The absence of a clear boundary between work and home makes it difficult to truly un-plug from work or vice versa. Employees are left in a state of limbo where they are never firmly in one world or the other and the divided demands of the two worlds are unsettling. The phone is ringing with a call from a client while at the same time the dog is making it really clear that if you don’t act now, the next task you will perform will be cleaning up a mess. Which of these takes priority? The employer probably has a different answer than the employee.

Loneliness and isolation are also reported to be major sources of burnout and stress. People by nature are social creatures. Sitting alone at a computer all day does not check the social box for many who are used to daily interaction with dozens of co-workers. Those that used to disdain the constant interruptions that accompany most work environments now find themselves waxing nostalgic for the co-worker who was the constant “guest that wouldn’t leave.” While many organizations have resorted to cyber-communications such as Zoom or GoToMeeting to try to keep employee teams connected, one only has to ask an employee how fulfilling that process is in meeting their social needs to receive an earful of bad news.

Technology itself is a source of stress and burnout. Many offices are equipped with top-notch technology and internet connections. Most home offices rely upon the family computer and shared internet. Both are likely a major step down from the regular work environment leading to tasks taking far longer than if performed on-site.

Tools to Battle Burnout and Stress

Employers need to be mindful that stress and burnout are commonplace in the new remote environment. Here are some tips to help employees deal with the challenges and to remain productive.

  • Give employees stress management techniques- yoga, exercise, break to connect with co-workers. By encouraging healthy exercise and workday breaks to connect with co-workers, employers can relieve the sense of dread that employees face with a long list of tasks that have to be performed while glued to the computer or phone.
  • Encourage virtual team meetings to preserve connections with co-workers. While employees dread “work” cyber-meetings, connecting face to face with co-workers in social interaction can take the place of the water-cooler talks that help employees connect with each other on a personal level.
  • Have employees set office hours- Limit e-mail and phone responses after hours. Setting office hours will help employees deal with the sense of never being truly on or off the clock. It will also help employers avoid wage and hour claims arising from after-hours work.
  • Have metrics in place to measure performance. While it seems counter-intuitive, many employees find comfort in knowing and meeting expectations. Not having clearly defined expectations leaves the remote employees not knowing if they are fulfilling expectations or if their efforts are being recognized.
  • Have employees dress for work- reinforce time on and off the clock. This goes along with set office hours. Work clothes are for work. Gym clothes are for the gym. Dressing for work reinforces the work mind-set. Dressing for the gym reinforces that work is done and it is time to play.
  • Have employees use “do not disturb” signs on the home office, set rules regarding interruptions by family members, and use noise-canceling headphones. This again reinforces when employees are working and when they can relax because they are not on the clock. It also helps employees remain more productive because they will not be treated as always available with no notice for every single issue that needs attention. Just as is the case when working from the office, some things can simply wait until the end of the day.
  • Encourage employees to take PTO days. Even though employees are not on-site, they are still working. While not shackled to the daily grind at the office, they are still shackled to work. The need for time off from work has not gone away simply because the place of work has changed.
  • Encourage employees to stay out of their “office” after hours and to enjoy a hobby that does not involve a computer screen. This again reinforces the beginning and end of the workday. There is no temptation to check “just one e-mail” if taking the kids to the playground, participating in sports, playing cards, fishing, or some other non-tech related activity.
  • Give regular updates regarding organization and plans for future work performance. Employees want to know they are still part of an organization and not just a worker-bee completing tasks off a checklist. Find ways to tie them together with updates on not only the company but their co-workers. If they can’t come to the water cooler, bring it to them.
  • Do technology and work station audits to confirm reasonable working conditions. Make sure the employees have the tools necessary to do their work. Slow computers and bad internet connections lead to nothing but frustration and resentment. The IT department can provide some help but employers that expect the same performance at home as at the office need to give the employees the same tools.

No one has a crystal ball as to when or if the tide will reverse from remote work back to the more traditional on-site office setting. Unless or until that occurs, employers need to be on the lookout for employee burnout and use various tools to address and combat it.

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