• Corinne Marble

Burned Out? 5 Ways Remote Work Makes It Worse

Across the United States, workers have a completely different daily routine. Rather than a long commute to an office, many workers’ jobs are now a click away.¹ At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, this change was seen as a temporary one. Now, as the months wear on and workers settle into this “new normal,” it seems clear that things will never be the same.²


Magnet.me / Unsplash


Remote work has proven to be convenient for many people, and it has become the new norm as offices change their culture.³ But remote work has its challenges. The lack of in-person interaction, the juggle between work and home life, and the isolation are only a few of the problems that come with remote work. The long term mental health challenges that may come with these problems are unclear. It seems clear that remote work will impact mental health, but how? This question is vital to employers. And unfortunately, some of the conditions of remote work are the same conditions that lead to burnout.


Burnout is “a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.” When workers are burnt out, they feel exhausted and cynical about work that used to bring them purpose. They also often feel inadequate and don’t recognize their personal accomplishments. Reducing burnout is vital to a productive workplace. Thus, we must examine what remote work looks like, and how it connects to the causes of burnout. This way, we can learn more about how remote work and burnout intersect.


Collaboration


With remote work, there are no spontaneous conversations over a water cooler. Collaboration is less ad-hoc and more orchestrated, which has benefits and drawbacks. Orchestrated collaboration involves stating the purpose of the conversation before it happens. This can make it more efficient. Yet, the lack of spontaneity impedes some knowledge sharing. Workers no longer bump into each other in the break room and talk about their projects, offering opinions and advice. In many types of work, these random conversations with co-workers can be a crucial resource that affects the quality of one’s work.


The fact that collaboration is more orchestrated connects to burnout in two ways. First of all, remote work decreases casual conversation with co-workers. This in turn decreases social interaction, which can cause burnout.¹⁰ Second of all, spontaneous conversations with co-workers were a resource, which is now gone. When workers don’t have access to resources that help them do a job, they tend to experience burnout.¹¹ This is because it reduces a workers’ sense of control, which is vital for mental well-being. Thus, the loss of a resource can cause burnout.


Social Gatherings


Many workplaces once joined together in-person to gather for team- and morale-building. Some would go to a bar on Fridays or chat weekly in a common room. These gatherings have been replaced by group video calls or through text conversations.¹² But conversation over video is not the same. In-person, people can talk at the same time as each other to different people and chat in small groups. If more than one person talks at once on a video call, both voices will come through. They become muddled, and it becomes impossible to focus on one of them.¹³ And over text or phone calls, people cannot register each other’s facial expressions.¹⁴ In this way, social interaction has become less natural and more stilted.


Social interaction can still occur, but the quality isn't the same. This can reduce the feeling of community. In-person social gatherings can increase a sense of social connection. As mentioned in the paragraphs above, reduced social support is a risk factor for burnout.¹⁵ Social interaction is vital for well-being, and a reduction can have long-term negative effects.


Work-Life Balance


Work-life balance is something that many people strive for, but it is not easy to achieve. When work and home are the same place, balancing the two can be more difficult. It is easy to fall into an “always-on” approach to work, or for team members to expect availability at all hours.¹⁶ This increases working hours and decreases the ability for one to switch off from work and relax. Without boundaries between work and home, the work-life balance is shifted towards work.¹⁷ This is demanding and draining for the worker.


One of the main causes of burnout is work overload. Work overload doesn’t necessarily mean that the work itself is too much. It can refer to not having a break from work, and thus not having time to rest, recover, and restore balance.¹⁸ During the pandemic, people have been working more hours, and have had less of a boundary between “work time” and “home time.”¹⁹ When workers are “always-on,” or meet with co-workers and answer emails at all hours, the stress from work can invade other aspects of life.²⁰ Even if the amount of work itself doesn’t increase, work overload can increase, which leads to burnout.


Differing Challenges


Throughout this pandemic, workers have been in very different conditions. Some live alone and experience total isolation, while others have increased social demands.²¹ For example, parents of young children must juggle child care and work demands. Everyone faces different challenges, but some challenges get in the way of working. This can create unfair working conditions. Those who are alone may be bored and welcome more meetings, while those same meetings may be a burden to parents who have to watch a child.

The perception of fairness plays a role in burnout.²² When working conditions disadvantage some and not others, the workers at a disadvantage may feel that the system is not equal. In the example above, a company that requires employees to attend many meetings may be unfair to the working parent. A lack of fairness has been shown to lead to burnout.²³ Disadvantaged workers may feel less respected and more cynical about their work. Because of this, they may feel less connected to their work and the company itself.


Brian Wangenheim / Unsplash


Lack of Control


During this time, people have less control over their condition, and cannot escape it.²⁴ If they are in a loud environment and have a poor wi-fi connection, they cannot sit around in a coffee shop or a library. And if they want to go on a vacation to escape it all, it is much harder to do so. During a pandemic, we have lost the ability to make choices the way we used to.²⁵ Also, we are dealing with big world problems that we cannot solve but impact us greatly. This leads to a lack of a sense of control.

A lack of control is yet another known factor in burnout.²⁶ Without a sense of control, one may feel more purposeless. With a reduced ability to do their job, they may become frustrated. The extra effort that it takes to do the job may feel like a burden. This can lead to a sense of cynicism about the job itself. Though these problems are more directly related to the pandemic than remote work itself, they are still essential to think about. The pandemic is the cause of most remote work these days, and employers must consider the effect that it has on their employees.


All of these factors of remote work in the time of the COVID pandemic may increase one’s risk of burnout. Yet, remote work has advantages as well, some of which may actually reduce burnout. For example, space away from co-workers may give people a sense of autonomy that reduces burnout.²⁷ Also, there are fewer physical distractions for many people, allowing them to be more productive and feel more in control of their work.²⁸ Remote work has enough advantages that it is most likely here to stay. Both workers and employers need to think of ways to reduce the negative effects it might have.

There are some things that have improved communication between workers during this time.

  1. Employers started having daily check-ins with employees to give a greater sense of social support and structure.²⁹

  2. People have increased social media usage, allowing a greater depth of virtual communication.³⁰

  3. Employers established family-friendly cultural norms that may not have been in place before.³¹ This helps mitigate the disparity between working parents and those without such challenges.

  4. Employers implemented psychological resources to support employees through their challenges.³²

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the workplace forever. With change comes the responsibility to re-evaluate company practices to improve worker conditions. Burnout is a long-term issue, and may not be obvious at first. But as remote work continues to be popular, we as a society need to prepare for the challenges that changed working conditions bring. Taking care of employee mental health is vital and will improve a company as a whole.


Gabriel Benois / Unsplash




References


  1. Dey, M., Frazis, H., Loewenstein, M., & Sun, H. (2020). Ability to work from home: evidence from two surveys and implications for the labor market in the COVID-19 pandemic. Monthly Labor Review. https://doi.org/10.21916/mlr.2020.14

  2. Molino, M., Ingusci, E., Signore, F., Manuti, A., Giancaspro, M. L., Russo, V., Zito, M., & Cortese, C. G. (2020). Wellbeing Costs of Technology Use during Covid-19 Remote Working: An Investigation Using the Italian Translation of the Technostress Creators Scale. Sustainability, 12(15), 5911. https://doi.org/10.3390/su12155911

  3. Waizenegger, L., McKenna, B., Cai, W., & Bendz, T. (2020). An affordance perspective of team collaboration and enforced working from home during COVID-19. European Journal of Information Systems, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1080/0960085X.2020.1800417

  4. Ibid.

  5. Galea, S., Merchant, R. M., & Lurie, N. (2020). The Mental Health Consequences of COVID-19 and Physical Distancing: The Need for Prevention and Early Intervention. JAMA Internal Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.1562

  6. Queen, D., & Harding, K. (2020). Societal pandemic burnout: A COVID legacy. International Wound Journal, 17(4), 873–874. https://doi.org/10.1111/iwj.13441

  7. Ibid.

  8. Waizenegger, L., McKenna, B., Cai, W., & Bendz, T. (2020). An affordance perspective of team collaboration and enforced working from home during COVID-19. European Journal of Information Systems, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1080/0960085X.2020.1800417

  9. Ibid.

  10. Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: Recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry : Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 15(2), 103–111. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20311

  11. Ibid.

  12. Waizenegger, L., McKenna, B., Cai, W., & Bendz, T. (2020). An affordance perspective of team collaboration and enforced working from home during COVID-19. European Journal of Information Systems, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1080/0960085X.2020.1800417

  13. Ibid.

  14. Galea, S., Merchant, R. M., & Lurie, N. (2020). The Mental Health Consequences of COVID-19 and Physical Distancing: The Need for Prevention and Early Intervention. JAMA Internal Medicine.

  15. Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: Recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry : Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 15(2), 103–111. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20311

  16. Molino, M., Ingusci, E., Signore, F., Manuti, A., Giancaspro, M. L., Russo, V., Zito, M., & Cortese, C. G. (2020). Wellbeing Costs of Technology Use during Covid-19 Remote Working: An Investigation Using the Italian Translation of the Technostress Creators Scale. Sustainability, 12(15), 5911. https://doi.org/10.3390/su12155911

  17. Ibid.

  18. Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: Recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry : Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 15(2), 103–111. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20311

  19. Molino, M., Ingusci, E., Signore, F., Manuti, A., Giancaspro, M. L., Russo, V., Zito, M., & Cortese, C. G. (2020). Wellbeing Costs of Technology Use during Covid-19 Remote Working: An Investigation Using the Italian Translation of the Technostress Creators Scale. Sustainability, 12(15), 5911. https://doi.org/10.3390/su12155911

  20. Ibid.

  21. Waizenegger, L., McKenna, B., Cai, W., & Bendz, T. (2020). An affordance perspective of team collaboration and enforced working from home during COVID-19. European Journal of Information Systems, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1080/0960085X.2020.1800417

  22. Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: Recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry : Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 15(2), 103–111. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20311

  23. Ibid.

  24. Zhu, N., O, J., Lu, H. J., & Chang, L. (2020). Debate: Facing uncertainty with(out) a sense of control - cultural influence on adolescents’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 25(3), 173–174. https://doi.org/10.1111/camh.12408

  25. Ibid.

  26. Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: Recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry : Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 15(2), 103–111. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20311

  27. Molino, M., Ingusci, E., Signore, F., Manuti, A., Giancaspro, M. L., Russo, V., Zito, M., & Cortese, C. G. (2020). Wellbeing Costs of Technology Use during Covid-19 Remote Working: An Investigation Using the Italian Translation of the Technostress Creators Scale. Sustainability, 12(15), 5911. https://doi.org/10.3390/su12155911

  28. Waizenegger, L., McKenna, B., Cai, W., & Bendz, T. (2020). An affordance perspective of team collaboration and enforced working from home during COVID-19. European Journal of Information Systems, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1080/0960085X.2020.1800417

  29. Ibid.

  30. Ibid.

  31. Ibid.

  32. Ibid.


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