The state of work from home burnout
By: Jennie Overton
Remote work is hardly a new concept. But the COVID-19 pandemic created a surge in work-from-home scenarios. At one point, around 62% of employed Americans were doing their jobs outside the office. Many of those workers have come to appreciate the benefits of remote work, such as limited commute time, greater flexibility and the option to work in cozy, ultra-casual clothes. But for others, working from home has blurred the lines between professional and personal responsibilities, leading to work from home burnout.
Approximately 69% of remote employees say they’ve experienced at least some symptoms of remote work burnout. This type of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion is problematic for workers and employers alike, making it crucial to increase understanding of what causes work from home burnout and how to mitigate risk factors as early as possible.
Here are some tips on how to make remote work actually work for both your team and your company as well as what to look out for when assessing your employees for signs of work from home burnout.
Why are so many people getting burned out working from home?
Studies show that the work-from-home movement has had a significant impact on the mental health of remote workers. Nearly 70% of those workers say the COVID-19 pandemic represented the most stressful period of their professional lifetime, outweighing a number of historical events. This is at least partly due to tensions building pre-pandemic.
Experts say burnout was already on the rise between 2016 and 2019. Back then, switching to remote work was a kind of treatment for burnout. Symptoms of burnout were highest among survey respondents who never worked from home, with 30% saying they felt burned out at work “very often” or “always.” On the other hand, only 18% of workers doing their jobs remotely full time felt those same burnout symptoms.
Once the pandemic hit, those numbers switched. Suddenly, working from home and burnout went hand in hand. 29% of remote workers responding “yes” to questions about burnout and 26% of office workers feeling the same way.
Why the shift? It could be that remote work is less of a choice than it used to be. Workers may feel isolated or unseen by supervisors. This leads to loneliness and concerns that their contributions to the team aren’t recognized or valued — leading to work from home burnout. And while it can be a relief to have extra time to help the kids with homework, it can also be incredibly stressful trying to care for family members while also paying attention during conference calls and hitting deadlines.
What does it look like? Signs of burnout at home
Employee burnout is a condition that generally results from a prolonged period of chronic workplace stress. The more that’s expected of employees — and the less satisfied they are with their work and how their efforts are perceived — the more likely those employees are to feel unfulfilled.
It’s likely easier to recognize the symptoms of burnout if you’re in the same office as your employees. Body language and the subtle nuances of even the simplest daily interactions provide tons of clues as to how an employee is feeling. You’re also more likely to give spontaneous feedback — a quick “thank you” as an employee hands off papers or a conversation about an employee’s latest achievements as you both grab coffee.
Work from home employees lack those organic interactions. Instead, you have to be proactive about finding opportunities to spot physical and psychological signs of work from home burnout, including:
- A sudden drop in engagement, such as an employee no longer participating on video conferencing calls or taking much longer to return emails than they used to
- Answering emails at all hours of the day and night, indicating they’re having trouble separating their work time and private time
- A decrease in the quality of an employee’s work
- Reports of physical ailments or mental health issues such as rising stress, trouble sleeping and headaches
- A change in attitude, such as an employee who has lost their enthusiasm or a formerly positive worker who is suddenly outspokenly negative
- An uptick in sick days
Why employers should care about work from home burnout
Aside from the obvious moral and ethical obligations employers have to pay attention to their team’s well-being, there are also some very practical reasons to keep track of employee burnout.
For starters, burnout could drive employees to abandon ship. One study found that workers experiencing burnout were 2.6 times as likely to actively seek out a new job. In fact, in just a five month span in 2021, 19 million workers quit their jobs. Once you factor in expenses associated with job advertising, recruitment, onboarding and training, it can cost up to twice an employee’s annual salary to find their replacement.
Burnout is still problematic if employees choose to stay. Workers who experience burnout are shown to be less productive and are more likely to call in sick. Increasing awareness of and being proactive about work from home burnout benefits all involved.
8 ways to prevent work from home burnout
When you’re working from home, burnout seems to lurk around every corner. Here are some ways you can help your team find balance and learn how to avoid burnout when working from home.
1. Help employees re-engage
Employees thrive on having an emotional connection to their work and the people within their workplace — even if that world is now virtual. Work on improving engagement with work from home employees by:
- Being more purposeful about face-to-face communication instead of relying solely on email
- Pay attention to your tone and concentrate on crafting messages that are supportive
- Provide remote employees with the tools they need to succeed while working from home
- Find ways to train employees remotely and coach those interested in advancement
- Create or revise your employee recognition program
- Emphasize your company values by underscoring a commitment to diversity and inclusion, organizing volunteer opportunities, etc.
2. Include virtual employees in company events
While obesity, drinking and smoking can all reduce longevity, loneliness outweighs all those risk factors to reduce life expectancy by a staggering 70%. Remote workers may lack the sense of community and daily interaction experienced by in-office teammates. That can be remedied by adding virtual events to your company calendar.
There are many ways you can keep your employees engaged and connected, even if they are working remotely. Live streaming fitness classes, hosting monthly trivia nights and conducting interactive webinars are just a few examples. You can also create a digital water cooler or discussion board where employees can socialize and connect with each other. Including virtual and in-person options as often as possible creates a more inclusive culture and encourages connections that could last beyond that initial half-hour of guided meditation.
3. Streamline communication
Meetings are shorter since the pandemic-inspired work from home shift began, but there are more of them, leading to a new phenomenon called Zoom fatigue. Employees interrupt their own workflow every time they sign on for a meeting, which can generate stress and affect productivity.
Minimize meeting time by analyzing every proposed meeting and ensuring it’s truly necessary and relevant to everyone invited. Approach emails the same way. Keep group emails to a minimum and only include employees for whom the contained information is vital. Turn to project management platforms and shared communication apps to streamline chats where appropriate.
4. Respect work-life boundaries
The reality of the work from home movement is that there’s often more than one person in each household working remotely. Think of the difficulties faced by two people with twice the video calls, twice the emails and twice the scheduling woes, plus balancing home life including kids, pets, family time, appointments and more.
Try to limit the number of spontaneous calls. Instead, schedule meetings far enough in advance that participants can adjust the rest of their day as needed. Respect hard stops instead of going over time on calls and stick to calls and videoconferencing within the normal workday.
5. Schedule regular check-ins
Make the time to check in with employees. That means scheduling an actual interaction where you can talk in real-time instead of simply dashing off an email. This lets you ask specific questions about how employees are handling their workload, what challenges they’re facing and how you can help make their work from home experience a positive one.
6. Model appropriate ways to disconnect
Employees working remotely during the pandemic reported that they logged three more hours of work per day, or 15 extra hours per week. It’s like gaining another part-time job. Some of the extra time that remote workers spend working could be due to new demands from their employers. But it’s just as likely that it’s because they have trouble disconnecting from work, since they’re always “in the office.”
Model ways to disconnect after hours so that your employees know it’s okay to do the same. This might translate into not answering emails at night or being vocal about taking PTO or a sick day.
7. Extending a helping hand to parents
Remote employees are already at greater risk of burnout working from home compared to their in-office counterparts. Add in pressures faced by parents adapting to a home office environment, and the stress can be exponentially worse. You’re not required to make special accommodations for employees who have a family. But you can choose to be understanding when issues pop up.
It can be difficult for parents who work from home to say no to their kids when they want to do an impromptu craft project, or when they are sick and home from school. Life happens. Make it clear that it’s okay to have dual priorities and that you know sometimes personal needs win.
Note that the same philosophy should apply to employees whose personal obligations are to family members other than children, too. They might be caring for elderly parents or an ailing pet. It’s important to be understanding of the big emotions that come with all these responsibilities. This helps your staff feel respected, appreciated and free to take care of what’s most important.
8. Make awareness of work from home burnout part of your company culture
It takes a village to prevent disengagement and overload. Make avoiding home office burnout a company-wide goal with the support and initiatives to match. This might be a handbook for transitioning to remote work, or you might include a tip for remote workers in your weekly newsletter.
For even more tips on how to avoid work from home burnout and assistance incorporating expert advice, consider integrating an employee well-being platform. Limeade is designed to help drive participation in programs that could help your employees become happier and more productive members of your corporate team.
Free playbook — How to prevent burnout
Learn more about how to tackle your workplace burnout challenges by visiting our ultimate guide for overcoming employee burnout.