Remote Working, Wellbeing

5 stages of burnout for remote workers

Lydia Watson

Balancing babies and balance sheets. Being forced to commute, and getting guilty about infecting your flatmates. Off on furlough and frustrated by financial fears, and a lack of purpose. These are all novel experiences that have been stressing us out this year.

But when stress becomes habitual, it can cause burnout – and remote working can pose particular challenges when it comes to that.

What is burnout, and where did it come from?

The concept was identified in the 70s, when a psychologist saw employees begin to lose motivation and get depressed after working too hard. ‘Burnout’ became the term to describe physical and mental exhaustion, a lack of engagement, and worsened performance at your job. Nowadays, it’s even being recognised by the World Health Organisation.

What does it look like? It can manifest as physical pain, emotional exhaustion, low productivity, and as a general growing disinterest in work – which means it doesn’t just affect your employee’s wellbeing, but your organisation’s performance too.

Burnout and remote work: where employees might need support

In our research on how organisations responded to the crisis initially, there were encouraging signs that they were getting a lot right:

  • 86-96% felt their company helped them, and kept them informed
  • 97% said policies and procedures were quickly put in place, and explained
  • 95% agreed teams were still collaborating well, despite being remote

But while that’s good to see, there were gaps when it came to care and empathy from managers – things that are essential when employees are under new, strange pressures. With that in mind, here’s five stages of burnout to keep an eye on in your remote working staff:

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5 stages of remote working burnout

Stage 1: Pressure to perform

With burnout more generally, one reported starting point is employees experiencing an urge to prove their worth. At first, this might not even be a negative experience – like a ‘honeymoon phase’ where passion for the role fuels their productivity.

But in this new time of remote working, there may be more at play. This pressure to perform is more born out of fear for their job security, coupled with compensating for the lack of visibility that remote working brings. Not to mention the people forced to work harder – from healthcare professionals to those with higher workload due to furloughed colleagues.

How you can help: one primary cause of burnout is “a lack of role clarity” – that is, your people not knowing what you expect from them. Make that crystal clear by communicating openly and often, so they don’t feel they need to overcompensate for being remote. 

Stage 2: Overworking and work-life imbalance

Working too hard, to the point of overlooking basic needs, is also commonly seen as a sign that burnout is looming. When your workers are staying logged on until late, skipping lunch, letting day merge into night – that should be cause for concern. This is where well-meaning passion can turn into the onset of stress, and that eagerness fading.

These days, there are more factors preventing that work-life balance too. Alongside the legal restrictions of getting out and about, and the loss of usual coping mechanisms, the earlier lockdown brought a new pressure to ‘make the most’ of working from home, or being off work. This stress makes the activities we chose to do to unwind a stressor in themselves.

How you can help: another cause of burnout can be “unreasonable time pressure”. Consider if your company-wide urgency to stay profitable is making your employees feel they need to over-prioritise work, or even if they’re setting too high standards for themselves. 

Stage 3: Disinterest and disconnection

As this experience of burnout progresses, employees can begin to withdraw and ignore or dismiss issues. This is where stress becomes purely negative, rather than a motivating factor, and other symptoms start to show. Fatigue, physical pain, a panicky feeling – this is not just when burnout starts to really be a problem for your people, but for your organisation too.

The social isolation of remote working only worsens this withdrawal – and could mean employees get to this stage without anyone really noticing.

How you can help: “Lack of communication and support from managers” is one known cause of burnout – and if you offer that support, your employees are 70% less likely to experience burnout regularly. In our research we saw ‘caring’ and ‘empathy’ were two areas organisations struggled during the pandemic – so it’s essential staff know managers consider their wellbeing.

Stage 4: Reduced motivation and perceived value

This is where burnout really takes hold, and action is needed. Employees might struggle to see how they (or others) add value, feel a sense of emptiness, or start changing their behaviours. This could manifest as “cynicism”: a sense of ‘what’s the point’ when it comes to their own work, and a general feeling of pessimism.

It’s easy to see how the pandemic doesn’t help here. The seemingly endless nature of rising infection rates and tighter restrictions makes seeing ‘a light on the horizon’ impossible.

How you can help: It comes back to that line manager support – which we saw as the key thing that the best companies got right. Couple that with open communication, to cut through the uncertainty, and it could go some way to help. Also be mindful of fair treatment, especially if an employee’s struggles are impacting their work – don’t punish them when they really need help.

Stage 5: Damaged mental health, poor performance

At this point, burnout syndrome can mean “total mental and physical collapse” – and the dire need for serious professional attention. It means burnout has become not a one-off thing, but something hard to escape. When your people are working out of sight, one “tell-tale sign” can be that their work performance has drastically reduced.

If you’ve noticed that, so have they – and due to the earlier discussed pressures of the pandemic and lockdown life, this could become a self-perpetuating cycle.

How you can help: an “unmanageable workload” can cause burnout, and when an employee is already struggling with performance due to experiencing burnout, the situation can look hopeless. They need their manager’s support – not just emotionally, but sharing their load with others and even identifying the need for a real break if necessary.

This is a difficult time for everyone – and leaders and managers are not exempt from that. So the most important thing is listening, and open communication. Let your people know your expectations, so they don’t feel they have to surpass them. Listen to what they’re saying to really understand how they’re feeling. And show care and empathy if they struggle – for their wellbeing, and that of the organisation.

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