We Need to Talk About Remote Work Stress And Burnout

Let me start with a few questions, shall I? 

Do you work remotely?

Have you been working from home for a while? 

Is the remote work lifestyle getting the better of you? 

If you answered yes to all of those questions, know this; you aren’t alone. 

Where once remote working was what we all dreamed of, the onset of the pandemic and an extended work-from-home situation revealed a reality we were unaware of. Striking that delicate balance between working from home and living at home can come at a cost: remote work stress and burnout. 

What is Burnout?

Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.  

World Health Organization  

Is there a reason, though, that work-related fatigue and exhaustion have been on the rise in the recent past? How has remote working made work-life balance even more challenging to achieve? And what are people saying? In short … 

We Didn’t Prepare for This

As the pandemic hastened its pace in early 2020, there was an unprecedented and unexpected large-scale move to remote work. And initially, it was all great. 

Shortened to zero commutes, reduced costs, and the ability to work in your PJs. Could life get any better? But no commute translated to being at your desk faster, resulting in an always-at-work mentality, longer hours of communication, fewer boundaries, and therefore, stress, anxiety, and increased remote work burnout. 

Take a look at these stats!

  • In 2017, a United Nations report stated that 41% of remote workers reported high-stress levels than just 25% of office workers.
  • During the pandemic, employees across the USA, Canada, and Europe added 2-3 hours to their workday
  • 69% of respondents in a Monster.com study in July 2020 said they experienced burnout since the pandemic started. 
  • In the same study, 59% of respondents reported taking less time off than they usually would, and 42% of workers said they had no plans to take time off any time soon.

And that is precisely where the problem lies. We are all pushing ourselves harder than we ever have. 

Is What I Am Dealing with Remote Work Stress and Burnout? 

I was 28 when I first experienced burnout. I was working 14-15 hours a day, easily. Most days, I would work from 9 in the morning till 9 at night, and then work some more because I had colleagues in a different time zone. 

Late hours, work pressure, bad eating habits, a negligible exercise routine… it all caught up in the form of a panic attack. 

For remote workers, things can be more challenging.

While isolation can be aggravating, we are also struggling with the stressors of excess communication.

It’s not easy to continually focus on the screen, attending meeting after meeting, with little to no non-verbal cues to pick up on. According to Microsoft, virtual meeting fatigue or what is being increasingly called ‘zoom fatigue’, is noticeable in as less as 30-40 minutes.

While talking about the importance of identifying burnout symptoms, technical editor for Toptal, Nermin Hajdarbegovic, says,

 “The obvious problem with remote workers, myself included, is that most of us work alone, so we fail to notice something is wrong, and if we do, we still keep going for longer than office workers.”

The three dimensions that characterize remote work burnout, according to WHO, can help identify symptoms.

Depleted energy: Not wanting to exercise, waking up tired, ignoring family video calls because you can’t do any more virtual meetings; these are all signs you need to reboot. 

Disinterest in your job: Spending hours on what would earlier take you a fraction of that time, constantly pushing deadlines, calling in sick often, dreading Monday mornings – it could all be a sign that you are heading towards burnout.

Reduced professional efficacy: Making a lot of mistakes, being unable to accomplish tasks, reduced efficiency, and low-quality output could all be signals of stress.

Symptoms of remote work stress and burnout showcased in the form of a human's body and which part is affected. Image sourced from Toptal.

Other common symptoms of remote work burnout include anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue, insomnia, anger and irritability, indigestion, headaches, and even heart palpitations. 

As remote workers, it’s easy to skip breaks, sit in front of your screen, and turn into automatons. But human beings need breathers, and they need social interaction. 

Productivity isn’t directly proportional to the number of hours spent in front of your laptop. Let’s not equate the two. 

Combating Remote Work Stress and Burnout 

While burnout may be experienced by an individual, avoiding it is by no means only an employee’s responsibility. Often work stress drives it. In fact, the WHO says,

“Preventing and solving WFH burnout requires a ‘meaningful response’ from both companies and employees alike.”

It is essential that as individuals, we recognize and course correct if we are on the path to remote work burnout. But it is also vital that an organization’s culture, values, and practices help prevent burnout in their employees. 

So let’s look at fighting remote work burnout in a two-pronged manner: what individuals should do and what companies and managers should be doing. 

What Individuals Can Do 

During my recovery from my burnout, one of the first pieces of advice I received was, ‘stick to a schedule.’ It’s not easy. In fact, I still struggle on most days. But without a schedule and a planned calendar, it’s very easy to let work take over life. 

“One of the fundamental delusions that has been driving us all, which is that in order to be successful, we basically need to be on all the time, I think that’s going to be completely sacrificed. Because we are all saying much more clearly the price we pay for that.”

Arianna Huffington, Founder and CEO Thrive Global, on the need to disconnect

This need to be on is even more true for remote work. But creating a routine is just one of many things to do and keep in mind. Here’s what else you can do. 

Schedule Work and Breaks

All those extra hours you’ve saved from commuting, put it to good use. Workout, cook more, read, catch up with friends, do things you wouldn’t be able to do if you were stuck in traffic. 

Stick to a Dedicated Work Space

We’ve all been there. Cold mornings when working from your bed is far more tempting than getting yourself to a table. But keep work and relaxation zones separate to make work-life balance a reality. 

Create Virtual Watercooler Moments

As a remote worker, what I miss most is chance conversations with colleagues while grabbing a cup of coffee. These interpersonal interactions need to be more intentional in a remote workspace. Think about how you can have casual conversations – a text group with work friends, a Slack channel, monthly catch-up calls with virtual games; they can all do the trick. The idea is to alleviate work stress.

Be Mindful Towards Colleagues

Yes, take care of your mental health but also help make things easier on colleagues. Reread that email or message before you send it out so that your tone or lack thereof doesn’t cause emotional anxiety. Worried about how you come off? Pick up the phone and call them instead.

Be mindful of timezones that others work in. After all, no one wants to wake up in the middle of the night to attend a call which could happen at a more comfortable time. Why cause anyone unnecessary irritability and anxiety, let alone someone you work with?

What Companies and Managers Can Do 

As a manager, remote work can be stressful too. The playbook for leadership needs change with the change in the definition of the workspace. It’s harder, more than ever before, for a manager to understand how their team feels. Non-verbal cues that you could pick up on, like a person skipping team lunches or someone being more silent than before, are now a thing of the past. 

So what can you do? 

Ask questions. Ask employees, “How are you feeling now in comparison to when we started remote working”? Do they sound frustrated, irritable, or even hopeless? Listening to what they have to say can help you define the next steps. 

Open up Communication Channels

Remote managers need to take a conscious step to establish trust, build relationships with employees, and do this by being available for conversations. Create a safe space where people can communicate with ease through various channels, not just with you but also with each other. Help them build relationships with each other.

Can you create a group channel dedicated to talking about mental health and strategies to cope with remote work stress and burnout? Organizations can look at starting peer groups for building healthy habits like exercise, meditation, or even meal planning.

Rethink the Clock

Do you really need everyone to work the same hours? Is it okay to just have some overlap in time so that everyone is on the same page? Allow for flexible, personalized schedules that allow people to work when they perform best. Use asynchronous communication to enable the conversation to flow through the day without everyone having to be on in a particular time window.

Document a team agreement so that people don’t feel like they need to respond to messages at all hours of the day just because another colleague is working. 

Give People the Time to Recuperate

As a people, we need to redefine what we mean by resilience. We have, for too long, heralded the ability to pivot and adapt without catching a break. It’s time to incorporate rejuvenation to enhance productivity and increase motivation.

As an organization, think about including mental health days in your sick leaves. Educate employees about the mental health benefits the company offers. Encourage conversations about mental health and remote work stress and burnout in group channels and in the form of workshops or webinars. 

Encourage IRL Activities

Before you scream ‘Pandemic,’ let me clarify. Several companies are looking at making remote work a permanent thing. If that’s the case, you need to take a leaf out of the books of companies like Buffer, which organizes once-in-a-year team retreats for all employees to help them forge personal connections and align themselves with the company’s mission.

Amid a pandemic (or if you are still too small to consider such large-scale retreats), though, think about recreating that IRL experiences online through virtual team building and digital team lunches, home office tours, virtual happy hours and games, or even informal Q&As. Toasty’s mission is to enable meaningful conversations like these between collaborators. 

So What’s Next?

I am not a fortune-teller. Despite having worked remotely for a few years now, I could have never predicted this unprecedented adoption of remote work. But here’s something I am willing to hedge a bet on. The future of work seems to be more remote than ever before, and if that’s the case, we need to find solutions and ways to deal with remote work stress and burnout today. After all, it’s time we prioritize mental well-being.

🌹 If you want to build trust in your team and have meaningful conversations, it’s important to lookout for signs of remote work stress and treat the root of the problem. At Toasty, our aim is to help managers, organizations, virtual facilitators, and workshop organizers build value in their conversations with their community. Toasty with its engagement-rich virtual meetings allows you to do this in a number of ways like breakout rooms, icebreakers, activities, etc. It’s a gamechanger for virtual interactive sessions. Don’t miss out!