The New World of Work: The Employee Burnout Crisis (Part One)

The workforce is beginning to emerge from what has been described as the world's largest work-from-home experiment. The experience has undoubtedly shed light on unforeseen scenarios and challenges for today's workforce—creating situations that will impact the world of work indelibly. As companies evaluate performance KPIs and other factors for returning to work in the office, it is crucial to anticipate the potential risks of an extended remote work period and identify learnings to carry forward as employers debate the future locations of their employees. To gather insights to inform those efforts, we surveyed over 300 employees working in companies across the United States to understand attitudes, challenges, and perspectives surrounding the remote work experience. In this blog series, we explore the trends to anticipate in your organization, along with opportunities to address them for improved employee experience outcomes.

Optimism is high for the remote workforce. Millions of people who moved to a work-from-home model virtually overnight have adapted "on the fly." Now, 74 percent of CFOs say they intend to make the shift to remote work permanent for some employees.

Today's large-scale remote working experiment seemed incomprehensible just a few months ago. Indeed, only eight percent of all wage and salaried employees worked from home at least one day a week, and about two percent worked from home full-time before the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet now, more than three-quarters of the employees we surveyed are confident in their company's ability to overcome the business challenges related to remote work.1

Despite the optimism, however, they are starting to notice issues, either personally or as a team, that they aren’t sure they can solve on their own. The adrenaline from the initial transition may be wearing off, leading to burnout.

In the weeks immediately following widespread shutdowns, employees had a lot of stamina to conquer challenges and rally around a shared mission to make remote work successful and see their companies through potentially stressful times. They’ve now solved most of those early challenges: They’ve partitioned part of the dining room as a workspace. They’ve helped children settle into a routine (nearly 40 percent of respondents have one or more children requiring care or homeschooling in the house) and have figured out how to incorporate fitness into their daily routines.2

Yet, at the same time, they’re working more hours and longer days and feeling the pressure to continue doing so. Before the pandemic, studies found that remote workers routinely work more than 40 hours per week, 43 percent more than on-site workers do, according to data from Owl Labs’ 2019 State of Remote Work report. Now, the time formerly spent commuting is being dedicated to working hours; even coffee breaks are shorter. The employees in our study say that they are more evenly distributing work throughout the day to allow for a balance of work and personal responsibilities (e.g., keeping kids on track or taking a fitness class online).3 While they may not be logging 14- to 18-hour days, employees say they're finding that work needs to be done over a more extended period, making it difficult to both anticipate the boundaries of the workday and disconnect at the end of the day.

In our study, we talked to several employees who described social pressure to be more responsive and online longer in an effort to show their dedication to the organization. In particular, those in struggling industries or at companies where layoffs are a threat are working harder and longer (not necessarily smarter) in an attempt to prove their value and protect their jobs. While the flexibility to distribute work throughout the day is appreciated—it’s the top perk of working remotely, according to Buffer’s 2020 State of Remote Work—it is a double-edged sword. With employees having different work schedules (that are not always visible to other team members), it can be challenging to collaborate or complete processes in the same amount of time. It can feel a bit like working with folks across several different time zones—only you often don't know the time zones in which colleagues are working.

All of this contributes to employee burnout, which has a substantial impact on the workforce. An occupational phenomenon officially recognized by the World Health Organization, burnout is characterized by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one's job, feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job, and reduced professional efficacy. Pair that with the mental stress associated with pandemic-induced concerns about health, safety, and financial stability, and burnout becomes amplified. Workplace stress is estimated to cost the U.S. economy more than $500 billion annually, and, each year, 550 million workdays are lost due to job-related stress. 

A few key actions can help your organization acknowledge and combat employee burnout in the COVID-19 era:

  • Conduct a remote cultural insights discovery with employees to solidify ways of working. Look beyond technology tips, as four out of five respondents in our survey say they already have access to the tools and technology they need to be successful in a remote work environment.4 Instead, there’s an opportunity to focus on improving the people and process-related elements of remote work, including meeting etiquette, communication, and more. Focus on uncovering insights that can help you address those areas.
  • Establish tracking metrics to pulse employee engagement. Be targeted in your approach, making sure to explore why engagement might be increasing or decreasing. Use information collected to tailor communications and plan internal initiatives. 
  • Create a system or process for schedule visibility, focusing on eliminating the stigma of varied availability. Allow employees to “opt-in” to working when they can show up at their best for the organization. Encourage team members to share how their schedules best fit together, balancing the need for both group collaboration and solo focus time.

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Making Sense of Insights with Rapid Innovation

These remote work insights offer high-level direction. Yet, as you plan, you’ll need to understand how they can help you form a smarter game plan to address employee burnout in the foreseeable future. Design thinking is a cognitive process that enables you to reimagine possibilities and alternatives—grounding those options in a view of what is desirable, feasible, and viable for your organization. Applying design thinking, North Highland's Rapid InnovationSM approach can help you make sense of trends in your organization's unique context and identify targeted opportunities that solve your biggest remote-working challenges. By looking first at internal insights and then conducting mini design sprints to address the identified problems, you can get creative on quick solutions to test out. Employees have already demonstrated than they were more creative than they were previously, as evidenced by their successes in creating new workspaces and navigating the new exigencies of childcare. Harness that energy before employees revert to the status quo. 

Click here to read parts two and three in our series.

1, 2, 3, 4: North Highland Remote Work Research Study, 2020.