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Why you’re feeling work-from-home burnout—and what can be done

As the pandemic drags on, many remote workers are reporting feeling drained. Here’s what some employers—and employees—are doing to feel better.

Why you’re feeling work-from-home burnout—and what can be done
[Photo: Alexander Krivitskiy/Unsplash]

When quarantines and stay-at-home orders swept across the country in March, many workers thought they’d be back in the office in a few weeks—a couple of months, tops. But as COVID-19 continued to surge and spike in areas that tried to get back to business as usual, employers revisited their policies, and some made the call to continue virtual work into 2021.

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On the plus side, workers could at least make plans to upgrade their home office or move to a different location entirely. On the other, many workers are logging extra hours, juggling additional care-taking responsibilities, and the stress of a global pandemic and a recession—all of which puts them at risk for burnout.

“Working from an office often helps create built-in boundaries around the day, designating work time and non-work time such as morning commutes and lunch breaks,” says Lauren Whitt, Google’s well-being and resilience lead. Now that many of us are working from home, Whitt says we’re facing decision fatigue around when the workday will begin and end. “Unexpected disruptions at home can also contribute to depleting our mental energy,” she adds.

A FlexJobs and Mental Health survey of more than 1,500 respondents revealed that three-quarters of them said they experienced burnout at work. The survey also found that 40% of those polled say they experienced burnout specifically since the pandemic, and 37% reported working longer hours.

Creating new habits

Whitt says the virtual work environment requires new skills and routines. At Google, she says, thousands have taken resilience training virtually. “These trainings are focused on applying gratitude in times of adversity,” says Whitt: “awareness of what sparks and drains our energy, as well as new strategies to invest in rest and recovery.”

For those who want to try an exercise in building resilience at home, Whitt says, “Ask yourself ‘what’s important right now?’ when you’re feeling overwhelmed.” The question allows you to identify your values and apply them to the present moment, she says. “It can also help you choose what to concentrate on, like an important work task, a family priority, or taking a personal moment to pause and reset.”

How employers can help

Clint Lee was among those workers feeling fried, he says. When the cofounder and CEO of OneDay, a Dallas, Texas-based video technology company, started to hit a wall, he took his family out to a cabin in Colorado for a few weeks for a change of scenery. When he got back home, Lee decided to help his employees recharge in a similar way. In August, OneDay started its “New Digs” initiative, which allows four employees and their families per month to work from an Airbnb in the location of their choosing, with the company covering the cost of two to four days (depending on the location). Those slots filled up immediately. As the months wear on, Lee is betting that a remote refresher will help his staff stay motivated and support their mental health.

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Another problem contributing to burnout is that the economic impact of COVID-19 has also taken its toll on businesses. Some are closing or strapped for resources as revenue dwindles. Whether or not it’s driven by the economy, a survey from Lyra Health found that the employers of 25% of respondents don’t support workers’ mental health at all, and nearly 50% said their company leaders didn’t offer any support related to the pandemic or the racial justice movement. The study indicates that this is seeping into workers’ lives. Forty-three percent reported feeling sad, and a third are saying that stress and anxiety are interfering with their work.

“If ever there were a time for employers to prioritize the mental health of their workforce, it is now,” Michael Thompson, president and CEO of the National Alliance, said in a statement. “At a time when so many are struggling, employers need to reinforce that the health, safety, and well-being of their employees is job one.”

Lee at OneDay has provided the ultimate solution for getting his staff to take a much-needed break—even if they continue to work from an alternative location. And Google managers are encouraging their teams to take time away from work “whether it be micro-breaks throughout the day or in the form of vacations,” Whitt says.

As the pandemic wears on, Sam McLane, chief technology services officer at Arctic Wolf Networks, says he encourages employees to treat working from home the same as the office, particularly when it comes to professional development and offsite training.

“Pre-COVID, if you had an offsite course, at the end of training, the majority of employees would count that as a full workday,” he points out. “With training now becoming 100% remote, people can feel pressured to complete their course work, and then switch screens and immediately resume work,” McLane says, “That’s not in the best interest of the employee or the employer.”

How managers can help

McLane suggests remembering that working in an office often means taking a bunch of micro-breaks in the day, such as when you talk to a coworker, grab a coffee, or brainstorm with colleagues. “When you are working from home,” he says, “it’s important to find ways to take small breaks yourself so you don’t find yourself staring at a screen for 10-plus hours a day.”

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Taking time away in any form is important, says John Myers, president of the Chicago office of Keystone Partners. But managers need to be alert to some simple signs of burnout, including noticing people who are:

  • Clearly working exceptionally long hours, writing, and returning emails after hours and on the weekends.
  • Exhibiting personal or professional behaviors that are new, different, or less productive than in the past.
  • Losing interest and motivation or having difficulty concentrating.
  • Less communicative than usual. Detached or isolating themselves.
  • Procrastinating, forgetful, and/or missing deadlines.
  • Showing a change in mood or demeanor, especially those who might start taking their frustrations out on others or having shortness of temper, impatience with colleagues, or other outward displays of emotions.
  • Articulating feelings of ineffectiveness or lack of accomplishment.

“Employers can take it a step further by offering education on the signs and symptoms of burnout,” he suggests, “and pointing people toward resources that can be helpful, such as employee assistance programs.”

But Manu Varma, principal strategist of customer enablement for employee engagement platform Bettr.me, says that even in the best of times, employees may not want to admit they’re feeling fried to a supervisor. Now, Varma says, it’s harder because it’s virtual and a lot of home offices don’t offer much privacy. He recommends self-reporting, either through an app or a digital journaling platform.

“Self-reporting gives employees the ability to be introspective, helps bridge social distance, but also illuminates leading indicators of burnout by leveraging machine learning,” Varma says. When that data is shared with the employer, Varma says companies can more easily prevent burnout. “The metadata that comes from self-reporting provides insights the human brain simply cannot do or is missed through conversation,” says Varma.

“As business leaders, we must find ways to ensure our people are supported, even when they don’t see each other every day,” says Lee. “While our New Digs program can’t solve all the stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic and all its side effects, it is something we can offer right now to support our employees and prioritize mental health for our team members.” Especially when none of us can predict when and if things will ever return to pre-pandemic normal.

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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