The popular perception of remote work seems perfect for a flow work state. You can work in your PJs, next to your favorite plant, and close to your loved ones. Sounds like the ideal work model.
Well, no. The reality is an entirely different story.
It turns out stress is a constant work reality—whether we’re doing tasks behind an office desk or on the kitchen counter, work can get overwhelming and lead to burnout. In the US, an estimated $125 billion to $190 billion in health care costs is attributed to burnout-related issues each year. Aside from these costs, overworked employees also tend to go looking for other jobs quickly, leading to high turnover, low retention, and more hiring costs for the employer.
Employers who take action to reduce the chances of burnout have a significant competitive advantage. Not only are their employees healthier and happier, but they are also more productive and engaged.
So, how can you stay ahead of the burnout curve and avoid workplace burnout? Well, the first step to solving any problem is understanding it. In this article, we'll look at why employee burnout is on the rise, and then we'll show you how to burnout-proof your distributed team.
What is behind the increase in burnout?
You might ask, “Why the increase in burnout?” There are a few reasons, but let’s put them into two broad categories:
Work dynamics have shifted
The boundaries between work and personal life have blurred with remote work. When we all had to commute to work physically, it was easier to create mental and physical boundaries where work started and ended. You could leave work at work and pick up where you left off the next day. It’s not the same with remote work.
With your home as your office, it’s all too easy to pull out your laptop and get work done during the times you’d usually take off. According to a Biteable survey, most employees (29%) spend 7 to 8 hours per day on work when working from home, compared to 5-6 hours when working in an office.
Digital presenteeism is also on the rise. A side effect of an always-on culture is that people feel the pressure to signal effort and presence, so they don’t go unnoticed. Research by group risk provider Canada Life found that nearly half (46%) of UK WFH employees feel more pressure to be present.
The combination of long workdays and the mental exhaustion of maintaining presenteeism leaves more remote workers burnt out.
People feel misunderstood and less supported
For centuries, we have operated within work models that elevated visibility over productivity. And these have shaped employees’ ideas of what it means to be productive.
According to job marketplace firm Zippia, 34% of workers don’t feel safe reporting stress or mental health issues to their managers because they think it would be interpreted as laziness or unwillingness to do their tasks.
The onus is on team managers to encourage open communication and demonstrate empathy for each team member’s struggles—but that doesn’t always happen. One of the ways that dysfunction manifests is in unclear expectations. Employees who don’t know what the business expects of them at work tend to overcompensate with presenteeism, leading to burnout.
Poor communication also manifests as little to no recognition of employees for jobs well done. And that’s detrimental to job satisfaction and productivity. According to TINYpulse data, 21.5% of employees who don't feel appreciated for their hard work have interviewed for new jobs in the last three months—nearly twice as many as employees who do feel like they receive recognition.
Now that we’ve shed some light on the reasons for remote employees’ burnout, let’s look at some tips for preventing it.
Consider this the holy grail checklist for keeping your remote team mentally healthy, productive, and efficient. Keep in mind that these tips are like interlocking cogs—they have to work together or the entire machine is going nowhere.
With that caveat in mind, here are a few go-to tips to help burnout-proof your distributed team:
1. Encourage people to take more time off
It’s easy for employers to think that employees would simply take off and abandon work if they allowed them flexible off days. But the opposite is the case.
Employees with a flexible work schedule can easily plan their personal schedules around their shifts, making for a healthier work-life balance. A study shows that employees who can make alternative work schedules to suit their needs are more likely to be more focused at work.
So, offer your employees well-being days or paid holidays. And remember, the best way to make it culture is to lead by example. Take breaks yourself, and resist the temptation to e-hover or micromanage your team.
If you’re consistent with demonstrating that you value healthy boundaries, your team members will get the message and follow suit.
2. Help employees carve out boundaries
Another way to walk your talk is to create structures that help your employees set healthy work boundaries. For example:
- Set aside specific times for communication across time zones. Encourage team members to be aware of each others’ availability and balance the use of synchronous and asynchronous communication methods.
- One of the ways to do the above is to use communication tools that display statuses, e.g., Slack. And encourage team members to update their statuses with activities as they unfold during the workday, e.g., having lunch, walking the dog, exercising, being available, working, etc.
- Encourage taking some breaks during the day, e.g., 30 minutes of screen-free time. This is the equivalent of on-site breaks or nap times.
- Check in on employees frequently. Ask about their bandwidth for work and how well they are doing. For example, a task may be taking them longer than expected, or they may be struggling with things in their personal life that make them less productive.
3. Encourage people to prioritize
Burnout is essentially the sum of choosing to work on the wrong things for too long. And that mostly happens when employees are disconnected from team goals and their contributions towards them.
To prevent this disconnect, set clear expectations and timelines for team members, so they are all on the same page about what needs to be done and when it needs to be done.
That way, employees know to only work on things that move the needle. This is why it's also crucial to know your team's strengths and skills. That knowledge will help you determine which team member is best suited for particular tasks based on their abilities.
4. Use workload management tools
Remote work arrangements are possible thanks to communication and collaboration tools that take care of the hassles teams are bound to encounter. Take advantage of them—especially workload management and time management tools.
These tools will help you determine if anyone is overworked and, if necessary, redistribute work.
The first two tools also have availability settings, which allow team members to set specific working hours.
5. Train managers to support people
Middle management is key to employees feeling supported and understood, especially in a distributed work setting. So these managers need to be trained in this area to help combat burnout.
Managers should also understand how their team members work, e.g., how they like to complete taks or receive feedback, their communication styles, etc.
Employees seek validation for their work and are more likely to show loyalty when validated. Per Qualtrics, employees whose managers consistently acknowledge them for good work are five times more likely to stay at the company. Employees in a new position often try hard to prove their worth to management. However, if management meets their efforts with negative criticisms or they go unrecognized altogether, employees tend to become unhappy and unmotivated.
Manage distributed teams effectively
Managing a distributed team is no mean feat—it can feel like there’s too much at stake and too many moving parts. What makes it even harder is that most organizations are winging it—remote work was a sudden change for many.
You can avoid trial and error by entrusting the management of your distributed team to a partner like Oyster. We'd been working remotely sincer two years before the pandemic, and we're now using our knowledge and experience to help companies hire and manage talent all over the world.
Growing your distributed team? Take Oyster for a spin!
Oyster is a global employment platform designed to enable visionary HR leaders to find, hire, pay, manage, develop, and take care of a thriving distributed workforce. Oyster lets growing companies give valued international team members the experience they deserve, without the usual headaches and expense.