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Dealing With Remote Work Burnout: How to Spot It, Fix It, & Prevent It for Good

Remote employees can experience burnout, too.

It’s no secret that healthy work practices have taken a nosedive over the past few decades. Phrases like “the grind” and “hustle” are commonplace, driving a growing dissatisfaction with jobs and the workplace in general (one recent poll showed that a whopping 70% of full-time professionals are unhappy with their job).

It should be no surprise then that “burnout” is a hot topic. Just look at the rising trend of Google searches for “burnout symptoms” over the past five years:

Search volume for keyword “burnout symptoms” from 2017 - 2022.
Search volume for keyword “burnout symptoms” from 2017 - 2022.

What is surprising about this graph is the acceleration during the pandemic. One would be forgiven for assuming that working from home in the comfort of your pajamas would have made work much less stressful. But as it turns out, burnout knows no bounds.

In fact, burnout might be even more of a problem for remote workers.

The Biggest Factors Driving Remote Work Burnout

You can’t prevent something without knowing the biggest risks for it happening in the first place.

There are several reasons remote and hybrid work are driving more burnout. Working from home makes it impossible for workers to escape the source of their burnout. With a physical separation between the office and home, there is a built-in barrier. But that barrier is removed with remote work.

Another factor driving remote work burnout is the sheer amount of work being done by employees. While the driving concern from managers and executives at the start of the pandemic was that remote workers would get much less done, the reality is that hours worked increased as a result of working from home. And with more hours worked comes a greater risk of burnout.

Of course, these are far from the only things driving burnout. Here are the other biggest risk-factors for remote work burnout:

  • High (and often unrealistic) revenue and profitability growth rate targets
  • Revenue-based compensation
  • A psychological dissonance in what leaders believe is possible v. what truly is achievable in a given timeframe
  • Requirements or unsaid expectations to respond to messages at all times
  • No or very little paid time off allowed
  • No or very little systems in place to allow for quality time off
  • Management publicly praising working during off-hours or working over 40 hours per week

There’s no shortage of issues driving remote work burnout. And making matters worse is the fact that many managers just can’t see the signs of burnout in their employees.

In their book REMOTE, Basecamp Founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson write, “A manager’s natural instinct is to worry about his workers not getting enough work done, but the real threat is that too much will likely get done. And because the manager isn’t sitting across from his worker anymore, he can’t look in the person’s eyes and see burnout.”

The Effects of Remote Burnout On Employee Retention

Burnout doesn’t just cost companies in the form of lost productivity. It drives increased turnover as well. And left untreated, you business is bound to repeat a familiar cycle with new employees:

  • Someone comes in excited about a remote position.
  • They’re promised certain things and understand what the position requires.
  • They go through remote onboarding and dive into all the tools, project management software, emails, and handbooks.
  • They begin work and quickly find themselves struggling to keep up
  • They have to work much harder, without breaks or socialization (aka: water cooler talk) in their remote job.
  • They shut their computer down at the end of the day, only to pop open their phone when they get three new pings from their boss after hours.
  • They try to voice this issue to their manager, but it goes nowhere.
  • Soon, they disengage from work completely.
  • Finally, they resign.

This is happening in droves all over the world, with employers left scratching their heads as to why such a thing could have happened. But it’s no mystery - too much is being asked of too new employees, and managers are unable to see the stress and burnout brewing.

How to Prevent Burnout for Your Remote Workers

While some onus is on employees to speak up when they first feel signs of burnout, it’s ultimately up to managers, executives, and owners to foster a remote company culture that encourages this honesty, and doesn’t contribute to the already toxic “hustle” culture.

Here are several initial steps to take to reduce burnout in your remote employees:

1. Make sure time off is taken

Some remote companies like to boast about an “unlimited” time off policy. In an effort to appear progressive and trusting of their employees, they say you can take off as much time as you want. But the truth is that when given this option, employees typically underutilize it.

This is terrible for your business.

Without giving your team a set number of vacation days, many will end up feeling like they’re taking advantage of your unlimited policy, resulting in fewer days taken. Whereas, if you give them 10 days, they’re more likely to plan a vacation for that time.

Now, you can always approve additional paid time off above the “limit” you give them, but giving them that limit ensures they at least take that much time to themselves. And trust us, they need that time off.

2. Be consistent in deadlines and deliverables

When the scope and timeline of a project changes dramatically, it’s nearly impossible for employees to not feel stressed. When you set the due date in your project management system, keep it… even if it means scaling down the scope or final deliverables.

3. When they’re off, they’re off

You should never expect your team to respond to work messages while they’re away from work. This includes weekends, holidays, and their vacation days. When they’re off, they’re truly off.

4. Encourage time off with policies and benefits

It’s not always enough to just tell someone to take time off. If you’re actively supporting these endeavors with a budget, they’re far more likely to do it. We noticed this with our team. We’ve worked remotely for over 20 years, and at one point we decided to offer employees a full 30-day sabbatical every three years, in addition to their allotted time off. We do so because it makes sense to us. This is a cost to our company, yes, but it’s much less than the cost of losing great people to burnout.

5. Set the tone yourself

Your team will do what you do. One research paper even details, “Managers may unconsciously enable the ‘alwayson’ culture by communicating via email after work hours due to their sense of urgency.” If you’re saying one thing and doing the other, guess what your team will pay attention to? They’ll follow what you do. Actions speak.

Overcome Remote Work Burnout in 5 Steps

While prevention is key, it only works if you catch and stop a burnout problem before it starts. But if burnout culture is already very real in your business, you’ll have to do some heavy lifting to correct the problem—ASAP.

Here are steps you can take to treat remote work burnout:

1. Create an environment for communication

There’s a lot of talk about “keeping an open door” as a leader. But what does that even mean? How does your team know the door is open if you’re not in a physical office?
Ask questions. Questions are the single best way to get your team talking so you can fix a remote work burnout problem. Make them real questions, too:

  • Do you feel like you can relax after work?
  • Do we put expectations on you to be working after hours? If so, how do we make you feel that way?
  • If you were in my shoes, what would you do differently?

These questions not only give you more specific answers, but they give your team permission to be real and honest with you.

2. Lift morale — genuinely

While common efforts like gifting your team with a budget for new home office furniture or money to have a fun outing is a great gesture, there are many more ways to lift team morale, including:

  • Celebrating milestones that are based on actions, not outcomes
  • Acknowledging quality work instead of long hours worked
  • Creating more space for jokes and fun
  • Gifting time off instead of items or income
  • Addressing the elephant: more on that in step #5

3. Simplify your remote work systems

Part of remote work burnout and general overwhelm can come from the sheer amount of apps or websites your team has to keep track of. Employees shouldn’t need to have five different tabs and apps open at a time just to do their job well. Find a single place for them to manage all their work.

4. Reduce or eliminate meetings

We’ve said it once, and we’ll say it again: status meetings are overrated. In fact, most meetings are a waste of time, and could be either shortened or eliminated completely.

But won’t this tank our remote company culture?

No. Company culture doesn’t solely live in meetings. In a remote company, culture is developed through the way your team interacts inside a project. Meetings are a source of anxiety and stress for many of your employees because they have to be on camera (another useless rule), they often have to be at their desk (or they’ll hear about it, despite the position being “remote”), and they need to be on the meeting’s schedule instead of their own. If someone is in the middle of deep work and needs to stop for a meeting, they’ll lose momentum and take more time to get back up to speed, putting them further behind the deadline.

Look at your meetings docket and decide which to keep and which could just be a simple project update instead.

5. Address the elephant

It’s time to take ownership. Though likely unintentional, you have led your team astray, and now it’s time to set things right. No team will make a drastic shift in how they operate if they don’t think you’re serious about it.

Enacting new policies won’t do anything unless you address the underlying cause of burnout. Employees need permission to slow down and to speak up when things become unmanageable. And that permission can only come from their leader.

It won’t be easy. A team that’s burned out may not be very receptive. They may be harboring resentment already, and some may even be out the door in their minds.

All you can do is be genuine, and back it up with actions.

Work burnout is real… and arguably more present outside of the office than in it. If your company works remote or hybrid, be sure you’re taking steps to prevent and fix the causes of burnout.

One of the easiest first steps is making it easier for employees to manage their workload and communicate with one another. Basecamp was built for this. Get started for free in just 30 seconds, and see what a difference it can make with your teams today:

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