Your people are burned out. Here’s what to do now.
Since the start of the pandemic, more employees have been working longer hours without a clear start or end to the workday. Here’s what organizations (and individuals) can do to prevent burnout from remote and hybrid work.
The pandemic – and the pivot to remote and hybrid work – exacerbated many of our built-in boundaries with work. It also pressed (an indefinite) pause on our usual methods of restoration, like taking a vacation, working out, or spending time with friends.
So, it comes as little surprise that a study we recently conducted revealed burnout and stress among the top reasons why employees say they will look for a new job in the next year.
Of course, some people don’t know they’re experiencing burnout from work. Or if they do, they’re not sure what to do about it, or they simply treat the symptoms of burnout and not the cause(s).
With this in mind, I've taken a closer look at what burnout from work can look like, why remote and hybrid work have led to increased employee burnout, and shared some ways for organizations – and individuals – to prevent burnout (i.e., prioritize well-being) in a new world of work.
What is burnout from work?
According to the Mayo Clinic, burnout from work is “a special type of work-related stress – a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” Burnout from work can affect both your physical and mental health.
Common symptoms include:
- Lack of energy to be productive
- Difficulty concentrating
- Lack of satisfaction from your accomplishments
- Change in sleep habits
- Unexplained headaches or other physical ailments
“When you can’t drum up the energy to do even the most simple of tasks, and work feels like climbing the hardest mountain, that’s how you know you’re burned out from work.”
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s time to take a break and reassess.
Why is remote (and hybrid) work leading to employee burnout?
Before the pandemic, workplace technology was already critical to the employee experience. Employees needed hardware, like a laptop and a phone, to perform their jobs. They also used communication tools, like email and Slack, to chat with their teammates, colleagues, and clients. And so on.
And then the pandemic hit, and workplace technology became the employee experience. With many (if not all) employees working from home, organizations relied on technology to keep their businesses running. And while workplace technology enabled employees to do their jobs from home, new behavioral issues arose, such as employees not shutting off from work (due to always having access) or not taking time off (because they had nowhere to go).
Our boundaries with technology have changed. When working remotely or in a hybrid model, there are no longer those tangible or even mental moments of “clocking” in and out for the day. Without a commute to the office, a walk to pick up lunch down the street, or an end-of-week happy hour getting you out the door at a certain time, it’s difficult to know when to stop.
And without those normal indicators, we’ve slowly allowed work to creep into every crevice of life with far less time focused on what makes us feel happy and productive.
What are some ways to prevent burnout from work?
It may be obvious, but the sure-fire way to prevent burnout is to get back to what makes us feel happy and productive. But, we all know changing our habits is not that simple.
To start, I recommend a quick three-step checklist:
- Get clear on what success means to you
- Understand what your priorities are
- Align your everyday behaviors with those priorities and goals
What you value and how you define success might have completely changed since COVID. For many people it has and that’s okay. Now it’s a matter of aligning with those changes to prevent (or overcome) burnout.
Here are some ways to do that:
- Create boundaries between personal and workplace technology. When you’re working from home, keep your phone out of your office/workspace to prevent the blurring of home life into work hours. Likewise, create boundaries with your personal phone and work. For the bold, try removing work-related apps, such as email and Slack, from your personal phone. As a baby step, try moving the apps to a folder so they’re less visible when you’re using your phone when you’re not engaged in work. And definitely turn off work-related notifications after hours, weekends, and when taking time off.
- Adopt an end-of-day moment. A transition moment or activity can help signal the end of your work-from-home day. You can do this in different ways. Try physically leaving and closing the door to the room where you work. Leave your apartment/house to go for a walk. Go outside to water the garden. Or head to the kitchen to start cooking dinner, etc
- Establish (and stick to) healthy habits. At any time of day, prioritize healthy habits, such as getting enough sleep, exercising (or prioritizing movement), and eating nutritious foods. These behaviors will help sustain your overall health and well-being, tools you’ll need in the battle against burnout.
- Prioritize restorative time. One of the more common misconceptions about burnout from work is that work alone is the problem. When, in reality, what we do outside of work is just as important to preventing burnout. Outside of work, engage in restorative activities that are meaningful to you. The key is to choose activities that aren’t work-related and they usually don’t involve looking at a screen. And remember that no one activity is better than the other; pick one or rotate through your favorites – it’s completely up to you.
- Take time off from work. For many people, taking meaningful time off was difficult during COVID because they couldn’t travel for a vacation. And while a staycation can be restorative (see tip above), the temptation to check your work tech might still be there. To help prevent burnout, fully step away from work – and your work tech – while you’re on vacation. Doing so helps you recharge and return to work with renewed energy.
- Be mindful of the example you’re setting. Practice what you preach, especially if you're a leader setting an example for your team. Instead of sending an email after work hours or on a weekend, use technology to your advantage and schedule emails and Slack messages to send during work hours only. That way, the recipient won’t feel pressured to respond or even passively check-in when they’re not working.
Individual action is one piece of the burnout prevention puzzle. In the next section, I’ll talk about what organizations and managers – together with employees – can do to help prevent burnout from work.
“One of the more common misconceptions about burnout from work is that work alone is the problem. When, in reality, what we do outside of work is just as important to preventing burnout.”
How can organizations help prevent employee burnout?
Organizations, managers, and employees all have roles to play in preventing burnout – and ultimately, influencing workplace culture:
- Organizations build the environment where culture takes place by creating the structure around how, where, and when work gets done work; taking time off; focusing on well-being; and so on.
- Managers perpetuate the culture by modeling behaviors and helping employees prioritize work (and restorative time off).
- But ultimately, it’s employees who dictate the culture by establishing their own boundaries with work, communicating with their managers about workload, and taking ownership of restorative time outside of work.
Organizations can help prevent employee burnout by establishing policies that promote work-life balance, prioritize well-being and restoration, normalize (and encourage!) taking unplugged time off, and aligning action with rhetoric (especially as it pertains to leaders’ setting an example with their own behaviors).
We see some companies giving employees recharge days – or even weeks – off to allow them to focus on their well-being without worry of falling behind or missing something. And while these extra days off are helpful for taking temporary breaks, preventing employee burnout requires a holistic and sustainable approach to promoting a healthy work-life balance.
It also takes listening to your people, and taking action on their needs. For example, a recent study by the Future Forum revealed that flexibility is now one of the top factors influencing attraction and retention at organizations. Indeed, nearly all (93%) knowledge workers want a flexible schedule, while 76% want flexibility in where they work.
Knowing what employees’ expectations are can help organizations understand their needs and preferences – including how and where they want to work, as well as what matters most to them – and then take action on those expectations.
And with 44% of people saying they’ll look for a new job in the next year, now is the time for organizations to do the work; to take a hard look at their retention strategies, prioritize employee well-being, rally leaders around promoting work-life balance, and provide employees with the tools they need to establish healthy boundaries with technology – wherever they’re working.
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