Mental Health Burnout in Your Remote Workforce

Remote worker burnout is a serious issue which will incresae without proper addressing. Learn the signs of faltering mental health and how to help your remote workforce!

About the author

Dan Sims

Sr. Analyst, Product Perfect

Quality Engineer and Technical Writer with a background in engineering and technology.

“Even when I worked in an office, I would often bring work home with me. When I started working remotely, it was just a recipe for disaster.”

This 2023 reflection from productivity app pioneer and remote-first workplace Doist CTO Goncalo Silva is emblematic of an emerging remote working paradox. The benefits of remote working, including convenience, flexibility, and sustainability are what typically come to mind first when the topic is discussed in 2024. Rather than contributing to burnout, remote working is often viewed as a panacea for job stress, distancing employees from face to face contact, frustrating commutes, and office politics that frequently lead to conflict, anger, exhaustion, and job dissatisfaction.

A deeper dive, along with feedback from behavioral scientists, human resource professionals, and other experts reveals a dangerous flip side of the remote working coin that increasingly contributes to job burnout and fatigue. Erosion of traditional work-life boundaries, long hours, and isolation are among the factors that detrimentally impact employee health, happiness, and productivity.

Curtailing burnout and keeping your staff on the right track towards a challenging, productive, yet healthy work and life habits are essential for both enterprise success and facing the hurdles of remote working.

Finally, the world is recognizing remote workplace burnout

Our discussion of job burnout, or more specifically, job burnout related to remote working, must be prefaced by a discussion of mental health in general. While job burnout and job stress are experienced universally, more serious mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety can exacerbate these issues and create more serious challenges. With this in mind, the information presented herein is in no way intended to substitute for the professional treatment prescribed for serious mental health conditions.

Disclaimer notwithstanding, the evidence continues to mount, affirming the connection between remote working and job burnout. Before we examine the symptoms and root cause in detail, its useful to review some recent survey results that provide insight into this growing problem:

  • 67% of remote workers feel pressured to be always available.
  • 48% of remote workers lack emotional support from employers.
  • 30% of remote workers fully avoid weekend work.
  • 51% of remote workers lack employer support for burnout.
  • 45% of pandemic-induced remote workers report increased work hours.
Percentage of workers who feel burnt out. Source: Zippia

Key traits of burnout and remote-workplace burnout

The term “burnout” in relation to the workplace was originally coined by Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North in 1974. Given the repetitive and strenuous nature of many occupations a century ago, the condition certainly predated the term. Because of the stigma associated with positive mental health, and in cases of its outright dismissal, those who suffered from internal problems may have refused to recognize their internal struggles.

The 12 Stages of Burnout. Source: The Musing Mind

Interestingly, many of the behaviors and issues linked to the stages of burnout 50 years ago, such as working past reasonable limits, withdrawal from support systems, and feeling disconnected, are much more likely to impact remote workers.

Symptoms are obvious, but can sneak up on us. Burnout symptoms are also likely to change or intensify as the condition progresses. Some of key characteristics of remote worker burnout beyond just occasional mental lapses and declining interest in work include:

  • Fatigue – A sense of fatigue and constant tiredness indicates burnout. Fog brain, fuzziness, and reduced energy are common symptoms of burnout, even after a full night’s sleep. Fatigue leads directly to reduced productivity, so it behooves your enterprise to keep staff refreshed and fully rested.
  • Increased stress levels – Burnout and stress can create a vicious cycle. The added stress creates additional burnout symptoms which lead to additional stress, and so on. Are you or your staff feeling strained, angered, or discouraged more often than usual? These can be burnout red flags.
  • Health problems – Symptoms of remote burnout also impact physical well being. Raised blood pressure, less sleep, and digestive problems are among the physical health issues resulting from burnout.

If any of these patterns or symptoms sound familiar to you or your staff, they should be taken very seriously and addressed as possible indicators of remote work fatigue.

What causes remote worker burnout?

So many ‘experts’ are ready to weigh in on the causes. “It’s a demand-capacity problem.”, says Dr Karen Doll, a consultative psychologist, working for 25 years on the intersection of mental health in professional environments. She cites 3 typical components of burnout:
1. Exhaustion...
2. Inefficacy (changing in how effective a person feels in their role)...
3. Skepticism (when our attitude changes about our work - ‘what’s the point?’ mindset shift)...

Doll cites other relational factors, like changing or unclear expectations. Projects that get too complex or have unrelenting schedules are on the list as well.

While ‘general workplace stress’ is an easy target as one of the driving factors, various other factors can become a little more murky when you’re remote. Remote environments create additional confusion and lapses in communication. Zoom/teams video chats are a perfect storm for misunderstandings or mischaracterizations. These sessions have physical implications as well, being stuck behind a monitor can suck the life right out of you.

Remote workers also tend to have additional responsibilities piled on their plates as a sort of penalty for the imagined privilege of working remotely. That privilege has also pointed to as the reason for lack of pay raises at annual reviews as well.

Here’s the rest of the factors for causation:

  1. Isolation and Lack of Social Interaction
    Working remotely can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness as employees miss out on the informal social interactions that occur naturally in an office setting.
  2. Difficulty Separating Work from Personal Life
    The blending of work and personal spaces can make it hard for remote workers to switch off from work, leading to extended work hours and burnout.
  3. Constant Digital Communication
    The reliance on emails, messaging apps, and video calls can lead to an overwhelming amount of digital communication, which is both tiring and time-consuming.
  4. Lack of Recognition and Feedback
    Remote workers may feel their efforts go unnoticed or unappreciated due to the absence of face-to-face interaction, leading to demotivation and burnout.
  5. Inadequate Work Environment at Home
    Not everyone has access to a conducive work environment at home, which can lead to discomfort and decreased productivity over time.
  6. Technology Overload and Fatigue
    The constant use of technology and the need to be always "online" can lead to digital fatigue, impacting mental health and well-being.
  7. Challenges in Collaborating Remotely
    Collaborating and coordinating tasks with team members can be more challenging remotely, leading to frustration and stress.
  8. Uncertainty and Job Insecurity
    The remote work setting can amplify feelings of uncertainty and insecurity about job stability and career progression.
  9. Performance Anxiety
    Remote workers might feel pressured to prove they are working and productive, leading to overwork and anxiety about their performance.
  10. Inflexible Work Schedules
    While remote work offers flexibility, some organizations still enforce strict schedules, reducing the perceived benefits of remote working and contributing to stress and burnout.
  11. Unclear Job Expectations
  12. Being / Feeling Overworked
    Long hours and limited vacation time, even with the ‘unlimited vacation time’ policies that have become so trendy lately.
  13. Dysfunctional Workplace Dynamics
  14. Unfamiliarity with Tools
    Requiring users to leverage new software, hardware, or products
  15. Lack of Management Support
    Proximity matters. So when a manager is on the other side of the country, or at a minimum hard to get a hold of, the quality of professional interaction can suffer.

Once again, we see that the top causes of burnout in traditional office settings overlap with those specific to remote working, with detachment and isolation allowing many of these problems to go unchecked. While 65% of remote workers report working longer hours than they had in the office, 48% say they lack the emotional support needed to manage these lofty expectations.

Addressing burnout and promoting positive mental health in your company

If you have any sort of oversight role, the onus is on you to keep tabs. People need support.

The good news here is that a few simple changes to the home working environment can go a long way towards preventing or alleviating burnout. One useful strategy involves creating a home work environment that mirrors the physical office. This allows workers to create a clear division between work and personal time while minimizing personal distractions.

“Part of reducing my WFH fatigue included ensuring I had a comfortable, inspiring, and motivating space.” - Roxy Couse

As tempting as it can be to roll out of bed, log in to the company laptop, and spend the day working in pajamas and slippers, treating our wardrobe, appearance, personal hygiene, and break times as if we were in an outside office can be an important step towards regulating remote worker burnout.

If possible, the home office should also remain separate from televisions and other items that can cause distractions. Creating this “virtual office” successfully allows you to leave it behind more easily when the workday is over, or when vacations are needed.

Source: Happeo

1. Acknowledge and validate burnout; poor mental health symptoms

One of the best ways to promote burnout solutions is by addressing them publicly. Organizations can handle this in a variety of ways. A small meeting? An all-staff email? However you proceed, the message about recognizing burnout and asking for help when needed should be a clear one. Checklists of symptoms can help workers recognize and correct their own harmful patterns.

2. Provide the resources and means to address burnout

A “mental health seminar” or thirty-minute pep-talk can’t undo the strains and fatigue resulting from long-term stress. If you truly want to help your remote staff, you need to give them the tools, time, and resources to start their healing journey. Strategies that accomplish this in a positive fashion might include:

  • Providing time off for mental health needs and including these benefits in company policies
  • Creating resources and pathways to help staff find solutions for mental health issues/burnout
  • Developing a more balanced, efficient workload along with better communication and support networks
  • Adopting benefits which help cover the cost of therapy, healthcare, and/or medication

A healthy, focused workforce will remain productive. A stressed, tired, and burned out remote workforce won’t deliver the same quality of work.

3. Implement personal strategies for better mental health

Even when employers supply the necessary resources, tools, and advice, personal health matters will remain just that - personal. It’s up to each individual to leverage the benefits provided to them and internalize what they learn. Remote workers might need to be reminded a bit more often to take walks, declutter their workspace, eat regular meals, or drink more water, so they can experience the cumulative stress-reducing impact of these seemingly minor behaviors.

The rapid transition to remote work, while laden with benefits, has also unveiled a significant challenge: the specter of burnout among remote employees. Observers and proponents of remote work, including experts like Silva, have long warned of this outcome. Silva emphasizes a point that, though it may seem trite, rings undeniably true: the critical importance of rest and downtime. The swift pivot to remote work afforded scant opportunity to address its potential drawbacks.

Now, in 2024, we are in a position to look back on the challenges wrought by long-term remote work—such as isolation, excessive workloads, and communication hurdles—and their disheartening consequences. Fortunately, we are also equipped with decades of accumulated knowledge on mitigating such issues in traditional work environments. The application of this wisdom to the remote work context holds promise. Employer-driven strategies, including recognition, education, and robust support systems, stand out as effective measures to reverse the concerning trend of remote worker burnout.

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