Remote Worker Burnout: Is It You or the Company Culture?

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Even though the sun is setting earlier in the Northern Hemisphere, the remote work days are getting longer—48 minutes longer according to research that explores teams impacted by COVID. We’re all feeling the impact—69% of employees are specifically reporting symptoms of remote work burnout. As winter approaches, remote leaders need to prepare for increases in feelings of isolation and fatigue among team members. It’s time to be more conscious than ever about putting safeguards in place to protect employees from overwork and burnout.

With such a weighty topic, we called on Cait Donovan, a burnout expert and acupuncturist, to lead our October Networkplaceless event and share strategies for preventing and managing burnout. She maintained a positive atmosphere and created an open space for conversation, guiding the group through the key reasons why remote workers experience burnout. 

 

Symptoms of burnout

From her years of experience and extensive research, Donovan shared how burnout physically manifests itself differently in everyone. She shared how burnout symptoms often first appear based on past trauma. For example, someone who was in a car accident when they were younger might first see indications of burnout in recurring back or neck pain. For someone else, who experienced severe indigestion on an international trip, may first notice signs of irritable bowel syndrome. It’s important to stay tuned into how burnout affects you before and beyond the “brain fog.”  

Hot tip: the most common cause of “brain fog” is dehydration.

Take a break now. Drink some water. We’ll wait. 😉

External causes of remote work burnout

Donovan explained that, once diagnosed, remote work burnout can be traced back to two sources: external or company contributing factors, and internal individually owned factors. “The biggest causes of burnout are your workplace, and not you, as a person,” says Donovan. If employees are feeling burned out, it’s primarily a result of company culture. She believes a burnout-proof culture starts with leadership. (We agree.)

Citing the Harvard Business Review, Donovan shared six external causes of burnout companies must help employees navigate, which include:

  1. Heavy workload
  2. Lack of control
  3. Lack of recognition
  4. Lack of community
  5. Perception of unfairness
  6. Values mismatch

Affirmation and the impact on burnout

While we spent time discussing each factor, Donovan zeroed in on lack of recognition. When workers are feeling unfulfilled, it may have nothing to do with financial compensation. 

“Everybody needs to hear from the outside that their work is valued, that what they’ve done is recognized, and that they are valuable as people,” says Donovan. 

We often hear from remote professionals that they feel unheard and that their work is unseen. Managers must work harder to routinely offer positive feedback, recognition, and praise to their employees to help prevent remote work burnout. 

As we discussed in a recent workshop training session with one of our clients, managers of remote and hybrid teams should offer five affirmations or positive comments for every one criticism. Donovan explained that affirmation is an important antidote to burnout, and even more essential on remote teams.

A few ideas for managers and leaders:

  • Create a monthly or quarterly recognition program for your team
  • Write weekly shout outs to colleagues on a team blog, chat, or discussion forum
  • Using a “wins” channel for daily affirmations in Slack
  • Encourage your team to share kudos and compliments during bi-weekly all team meetings
  • Reminder: leaders are people who experience burnout and need recognition, too

While these ideas won’t holistically solve remote work burnout for your employees, they will begin to create a culture that offers emotional support, validation, and true recognition. Burnout will need to be addressed systematically from the company perspective and should be a conversation driven by leadership. Open the door for conversation, so your employees can also begin to consider internal causes of burnout.

Internal causes of remote work burnout

As described, burnout is most commonly caused by company factors, but Donovan also shared six internal factors that can influence burnout:

  1. Lack of boundaries
  2. Negative mindset
  3. Perfectionism
  4. Past trauma
  5. People pleasing
  6. Low self-worth

People pleasing tendencies—or in her words, “if you consider yourself a good person”—are often a cause of burnout. Folks who give more than is asked for, or constantly volunteer, need to set boundaries to protect their time and energy. As Donovan says, “It’s not about saying no. It’s about not saying yes.”

A few ideas for all employees:

  • Create a Boundaries Agreement to establish norms on your team (create one as part of our Preventing Isolation and Burnout Workshop)
  • Schedule a virtual therapy or counseling session (using your company health benefits, if offered)
  • Tackle perfectionism with time management. Track your time and stick to prescribed constraints
  • Say yes less often

Burnout is real — take care of yourself.

All this to say, burnout is real. And it has nothing to do with being weak—a common misconception. Take care of yourself. 

If you’re feeling your burnout symptoms or are on the brink, consider learning more directly from Donovan on her podcast, FRIED.


You can watch the full session with Cait Donovan here:

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