Even among seasoned remote workers, burnout is a troubling trend: 59% of Millennials and Gen Z workers experience increased anxiety thanks to the strain of the “always-on” culture while working from home. Another 42% feel that they are unable to separate work from their personal lives. And anxiety isn’t just the domain of the young: nearly half (48%) of workers over the age of 50 say they’ve been unable to take a proper break since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Despite burnout challenges, remote work is also an incredibly productive, balanced way to work. So this article isn’t about cancelling remote work. Instead, here are some tips to stave off burnout so your team can continue to do amazing work while enjoying the freedom that remote working provides.
1. Set clear working hours
The first step to tackling that ‘always on’ feeling is setting temporal boundaries: clear working hours that are easy to abide by and allow people to unplug.
Sticking to a standard clear 9-5 schedule may seem unrealistic when we’ve got work devices on us at all times. With the added responsibilities of childcare or eldercare added to the mix, employees need to find work-time budgets that suit them best. Some may need to get in a few hours of work while their children nap or while their partner prepares meals. Or if someone doesn’t have kids and is a night owl, they may not work well in the 9-5 structure either.
Note: “Clear working hours” doesn’t mean everyone has to work the same hours. Just make it clear that people can - and should - have explicit time off.
2. Work asynchronously
Connecting asynchronously is particularly helpful when working hours aren’t all the same across the board. Otherwise, you create a chain reaction leading to burnout: moments of distraction take up vital work time. So people work longer, getting tired. Then they fall behind with further meetings… and boom, the spiral begins that leads to working more during your off-hours for no good reason, followed by exhaustion, tiredness, and ultimately burnout.
Communicating asynchronously with your colleagues and clients can be a powerful tool in the battle against burnout - even breaking up the monotony with ongoing chit-chat or exchanging ideas in a back and forth brainstorm.
Consider your sync meeting time reserved for pressing situations that can’t be handled any other way and for the human time we all crave (as in: talking with people to catch up on a personal level, not at them in a meeting).
Remember, time is yours - guard it closely, and it’ll go a long way to a healthier, more efficient way of working.
3. Have a clear escalation pathway for problems and questions
You can’t just tell people to work independently or async, remove all meetings and socializing, and expect productivity. There’s a good chance people will have questions or concerns that they need to discuss. Creating an escalation pathway makes it easier to address issues or questions without breaking this new workflow.
A straightforward pathway can be laid out in a simple step-by-step process, for example:
- Check the internal wiki for answers
- Search on google
- Send a voice note to a team member if you think they can help
- Speak with your manager
- Talk to HR
Ideally, you’ll have two pathways to streamline questions and concerns. For example, having a pathway for deliverable-related issues, or one for personal and/or HR-related issues at work.
Bonus points: If most of the process is async, people can follow it more easily on their own schedules.
4. Promote a culture of doing one thing at a time
The reality is that multitasking is counterproductive: in the long run, it will only hinder your efforts, not help them. Often we start to multitask to get everything done on time, believing that multitasking is the only way to get it all done. This couldn’t be further from the truth: studies prove that frequently switching gears back and forth between tasks, especially ones that demand our full attention, makes us far less efficient. We’re also more likely to make mistakes.
You really only need to perform one task at a time, and creating a remote working culture that encourages this principle will be a lot healthier for all involved. Trying things like time blocking, working on specific tasks during your productive hours, or other time management strategies.
5. Leaders should set an example
This one’s for the CEOs, c-suite, and other team leaders: you need to walk the walk. You shouldn’t expect one thing from your colleagues while ignoring those guidelines yourself. In that scenario, nobody wins - and you set yourself up for burnout, too.
If you tell employees they should take an hour to disconnect or not do work after 5 pm, for example, that’s great. But if you then book a meeting while they’re on lunch or send messages after hours with an expectation of immediate reply, you’re making clear the “real” rules are what you do, not what you say. This is also where good escalation pathways and working async come in handy, since these two processes can help everyone (leaders included) stick to the rules.
Burnout is a choice
At its core, a lot of burnout is a choice. Not that anyone chooses to burn themselves out. Instead, it’s often the result of an entire chain of decisions we make while we’re working that lands us there. And we have a lot of control over each of those inputs.
Building a workplace culture structured around helping your employees avoid burning out is key to long-term remote work success. The first step is to build systems that support productive outcomes, not performative actions. From there, the tweaks and improvements are going to be custom to your business’ ways of work and culture - so it’s worth asking employees what they want to see instead of only ever taking the reins yourself.