December 1, 2019. In the coming days, an estimated 115.6M people would take to the roads and skies for holiday gatherings, shattering previous records. Preparations for office parties and gift exchanges were underway. People were hustling to wrap up projects before the ambiguous days between Christmas and New Year’s, and business leaders were finalizing audacious goals for 2020.
This was the setting for a survey that revealed more than 60% of employees were feeling burned out at work. The World Health Organization describes burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Thus, this finding exposed an alarming problem. Heading into 2020, the majority of U.S. knowledge workers were overworked and exhausted. It felt like a crisis in the making.
But the world today is almost unrecognizable compared to the final days of 2019, as a much larger threat to public health has disrupted our lives. Commutes and in-person meetings became things of the past almost overnight. The line between “work” and “life” blurred as we adjusted to working from the couch or the kitchen table. But as many of us approach the point of four or more weeks of working from home alongside partners, children, and pets, the “new normal” doesn’t feel new anymore.
So has the shift to remote work alleviated burnout?
The answer, we found, is not that simple. For the first time, maybe ever, burnout for most has little to do with work.
In diving into data Emplify gathered from surveying nearly 20,000 employees across 1,500 organizations about their work experience in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, we discovered the following.
1. The “work” aspect of working from home is largely positive.
In our survey, only a quarter of respondents said thinking about work exhausts them, and 88% said they’ve been given the flexibility needed to do their jobs effectively. In the midst of the disruption to people’s personal lives, work has offered a degree of stability and structure. For many, old routines are an anchor in times of chaos. There is a degree of comfort found in the regular rhythms of the workday: answering emails, taking calls, connecting with coworkers. And, for those who have never had the opportunity to work remotely before, being able to work from home is exciting. There’s a thrill to the newness of working in pajamas. While it will likely wear off eventually, many are still in the “honeymoon phase” of working from home.
2. The “home” aspect of working from home is stressful.
Despite only 25% agreeing that thinking about work is exhausting, almost half of the survey respondents reported feeling exhausted. In a stunning role reversal, “work” is now an escape from the stresses and pressures of “home.” And right now, “home” encompasses the fallout people are dealing with in their personal lives: financial stress, family conflict, and anxiety about physical health. For parents, the perpetual task of keeping the kids occupied or on-task with remote learning is arduous and draining. With most schools closed for the remainder of the school year, the light at the end of the tunnel looks very far away.
3. People are feeling burned out, but work is no longer the cause.
Even though the root cause of burnout has changed, the core symptoms remain the same. When employees are mentally exhausted and checked out, productivity is the first to go. For people leaders and managers, it’s important to keep in mind that personal circumstances differ wildly from employee to employee. To better accommodate their situations, you first need to gain an understanding of what’s going on at home. Asking open-ended questions about how people are faring personally and professionally is a good way to open an ongoing dialogue and spot signs of burnout.
4. Employers have an opportunity to offer support.
For employers, the path to helping people recover from burnout might look more like personal support than professional support. What resources can you offer to alleviate some of the stressors at home? Knowing that many are grappling with financial uncertainty, perhaps recruit a personal finance expert to share budgeting tips via web conference session. Considering new health anxieties, maybe ask a nutritionist to share the foods proven to bolster the immune system. Think about hosting a virtual meditation workshop to teach breathing techniques that ease stress.
Even though burnout has less to do with “work” and more to do with “life” right now, it’s more important than ever to support people as caretakers, bill payers, and whole humans, not just transactional employees.
Santiago Jaramillo is the cofounder and CEO of Emplify, an employee engagement measurement company.