Burnout. If you haven’t experienced it yet, there’s a good chance that you’ve gotten close. Workplace stress is tough to deal with at the best of times, and on top of everything, the last couple years have been some of the most stressful in recent memory!

A global pandemic, economic turmoil, and an en-masse shift towards remote work—could the world throw any more massive changes at us? For most of us, it’s been a big adjustment (understatement, much?) so it’s really not surprising that burnout is on the rise. 

Burnout’s nothing new, but as we all attempt to bounce back from this period of intense change, dealing with burnout on a large scale is going to be more important than ever. In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about burnout in a distributed world—what it is, why it’s rising, and how we can deal with it. 

If, like us, some part of you is still dwelling back in early March 2020, these might be just the strategies you need to bring your team into a brave new distributed world. Come with us—you might find that it’s friendlier out there than it looks. 

What Is Burnout? Why Does It Matter?

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, or physical exhaustion that’s severe enough to affect your work. The term was coined in the 70s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, but we’re willing to bet that burnout has existed for much longer than that. After all, tilling fields or milking cows isn’t exactly a recipe for work-life balance!

If you’re burnt out, your performance will suffer, but that’s not the whole story. Burnout also affects employee engagement, meaning that you’ll struggle to feel calm, centered, or happy, and you won’t feel personally connected to what you’re working on. 

Burnout is more than a bad day or a busy week—it’s about ongoing, compounding factors that make your work (or work environment) so draining that no amount of positive thinking or good nights’ sleep can pull you out of it. That’s why employers shouldn’t look at burnout as an individual problem, but an issue that should be dealt with on a company-wide level. 

The impacts of burnout are serious, even from a purely financial perspective. According to an influential WHO study, burnout costs us a staggering one trillion dollars in lost productivity every single year. It’s also a major driver of employee turnover; in one survey of senior HR leaders, nearly half shared that burnout was responsible for 20-50% of their annual resignations. 

Turns out working people to their limit isn’t a sustainable business strategy—gee, who could have guessed? 

Why Is Burnout Rising During COVID-19?

Burnout has become even more prominent alongside the global pandemic and rise of distributed work. In one global survey, 92% of workers reported that they were experiencing burnout related either to their workplace, or the stressors of the pandemic. In another, 29% of respondents felt that they were “at risk of total burnout” by the end of 2020. 

Of course, it’s highly intuitive that working during a global pandemic would stress people out. But to address the problem, we need to understand it more deeply. Why, exactly, has burnout become more and more prevalent over the last couple years? 

Well, one big reason is overwork. There’s only so much our bodies can handle, and when many of us switched to working from home during pandemic-related lockdowns, our mental load actually increased, both in terms of the sheer volume of work we were expected to handle, and how cognitively demanding it became. Knowledge workers have been putting in more hours than ever since the rise of remote work—nearly 2 extra hours a day, or over 200 more hours a year. 

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On top of that, remote work can be more cognitively draining, especially video conferencing. Interacting by video requires much more effort, on a neurological level. If you find yourself wiped out after a day of Zoom calls, it’s not just you. Turns out that when you can only see people as blurry figures on a screen, it takes a ton of mental energy to pay attention!

Another (unsurprising) culprit for distributed-work exhaustion is a lack of separation between work and home space. Remote work has many advantages for cost savings, time efficiency, and quality of life, but when you’re working in the same place where you eat, sleep, and relax, it’s more difficult for your brain to switch between ‘work mode’ and ‘downtime.’ 

COVID-19, Burnout, and Inequality

If you’ve spent any time working remotely, you’re likely already aware of these issues. But what’s especially alarming is that burnout related to COVID-19 is affecting women, particularly working moms, and people of color the most. The reasons are complex, but greater financial precarity and more caregiving responsibilities outside are two major contributing factors. 

We’re already seeing the troubling real-world impacts of this trend. For example, in November 2020, there were 2 million fewer women in the workforce than just one year before. That’s bad news for gender equality, but it also throws the income of those women’s families into jeopardy.

How Can We Overcome Remote-Work Burnout?

Equality, worker health, and financial security are just a few important reasons for us to fight against burnout in an increasingly distributed world. 

But thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom for the future of our workforce. If approached with thoughtfulness and care, remote work doesn’t need to be a death knell for employee engagement and satisfaction. In fact, there’s evidence that it can be part of the solution—it just takes careful planning, and good policies that put people first. 

If you’re working towards a burnout-free future for your distributed team, here are a few ideas to get you started. 

Prioritize Clarity 

Reasonable expectations are key to creating a sustainable remote-work culture that brings out the best in everyone, and that starts with clarity. Leaders should draft policies that get rid of all ambiguity around how, when, and where employees are expected to work. That’s how you avoid worker confusion and anxiety, or worse, the ‘always on’ culture that’s a recipe for burnout. 

Create A Culture of Empathy

Employees aren’t machines—we’re real people who have lives, loved ones, and personal responsibilities. For us to do our best work, that needs to be respected. That’s why to beat burnout, distributed teams should be led by compassionate, human-centric policies that support employee health and happiness. 

That could include programs to help working parents manage childcare, or regular check-ins to assess employee satisfaction and workload. These kinds of steps will both reduce employee stress, and help managers proactively stay aware of their teams needs—before someone who didn’t know how to ask for help runs them themselves into the ground. 

Make Working From Home Flexible

Just because you’re working remotely doesn’t mean your job is flexible. Rigid, overly-controlling policies, such as monitoring employees’ computer activity during office hours, make it harder for people to manage their own needs, taking away autonomy and contributing to workplace stress. 

While of course, some level of time synchronization is necessary, if leaders can keep an open mind towards what tasks can be completed asynchronously, they’ll find that a little flexibility goes a long way towards creating an agile, responsible remote team that enables everyone to function at their absolute best. 

Beat Video Fatigue

There’s a lot to love about video meetings—and there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater in pursuit of a stronger, healthier distributed team. 

The key is to make video meetings work for us. Rather than feeling tiring, redundant or draining, video should make communication faster, easier, and more fulfilling. Step one? Keep it short! 30 minutes is a great sweet spot for video meetings. Don’t bump it up to 60 minutes without a really compelling reason. 

Next, hide your self-view. Think about it—would you carry a mirror with you into a boardroom?! Obviously not, because constantly seeing your own face is unsettling and distracting! You can even take it a step further, and consider audio-only meetings wherever possible. Or, try getting the best of both worlds by saying a quick hello, then agreeing to turn off your cameras when it’s time to get past the chit-chat and down to business. 

Set Clear Boundaries

While flexibility is great, it’s crucial that distributed teams don’t feel they’re expected to work all the time. Managers should set defined office hours and stick to them—that means not pinging people after (for example) 5pm unless it’s a true, genuine emergency. 

Lead by example! If workers see their manager turning off Slack notifications and not replying to email outside of work hours, they’ll understand that on your team, work-life balance is more than just a buzzword.

Support Work and Home Separation

Boundaries are about more than just work hours. You may have less control over your distributed team’s work environment, but there are still ways to help them create healthy separation between their work and home spaces. 

What about supplying employees with dedicated office equipment, or paying for co-working memberships? On the more affordable end of the scale, could you implement team-wide routines you can use to get out of work mode at the end of the day? These don’t need to be complicated or demanding. Even something as simple as sharing the day’s high and low points on Slack, then signing off together, can really help people mentally clock out. 

The Future Is Bright (And Remote)

Burnout is an undeniable concern in a distributed workforce, but it’s far from an unavoidable outcome. The last couple years have been full of challenges, but maybe it’s time to step back and think about how far we’ve come together in spite of everything. 

During COVID-19, so many companies had to rush into distributed models with very little forethought or time to plan. Considering the circumstances, should it be any surprise that so many of us struggled with stress, exhaustion, and burnout? 

Now that we’re well into our new normal, we have a chance to look at the big picture, and take real, impactful steps to make this distributed way of working healthier, more productive, and more sustainable for everyone. 

Remote work is here to stay. If we work together, maybe the distributed workforce can look even better than what came before it. 

6 ways companies can help their employees overcome burnout in a distributed world