Three years ago, remote work was akin to mythical creatures like bigfoot or mermaids. We had all heard about it but never seen it for ourselves. Well, I embellish, but it was definitely something reserved for places like silicon valley or consultancy roles. Fast-forward to 2022 with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic; remote work is a part of everyone’s lexicon, with Mckinsey (Smet et al., 2021) reporting 70% of white-collar employees working remotely atleast two days a week.
Remote work is predicted to continue for the foreseeable future as the world continues to battle COVID-19 in all its variants. Additionally, employees have proven to their employers that working from home works! Therefore, many organisations are expected to implement post-pandemic hybrid operating systems that combine office time with remote work.
However, the advent of remote work has unintended consequences for employee mental health. Mckinsey (Alexander et al., 2021) report that employee anxiety and burnout have increased by 50% since the advent of the pandemic. Burnout involves feelings of mental and emotional exhaustion. It manifests as:
- Constantly being tired
- Detachment from professional, social and personal networks
- Reduced concentration and memory retention
- Perpetual feelings of inadequacy and underperformance
This is a concern for employers because employee burnout:
- Reduces productivity
- Decreases satisfaction and engagement
- Increases interpersonal workplace conflict
- Increases employee turnover, which increases recruitment costs
- Increases employee sick leave
Why is remote so tasking?
- Work-life imbalance – Between household responsibilities, home distractions and worrying or grieving over family members whom the pandemic has infected, it’s no surprise that employees are feeling more burnt out. This is particularly prevalent in women who have traditionally been the primary caregivers at home. Parents with school-going children have also been more affected than other groups as they have to deal with extended school closures and remote schooling.
- “Zoom” fatigue – Video conferences require large amounts of mental bandwidth as people are forced to focus intently on conversations and computer screens. Compared to in-person meetings with non-verbal cues and whispering to your neighbour to ask what the presenter said, the additional exhaustion makes sense. Therefore employees are forced to hyper-focus or be left behind, which results in higher fatigue.
- Missing colleagues and in-person connectivity – Human beings are social creatures, we miss water-cooler gossip! Our social interactions with co-workers have been condensed to chats and 1-minute catch-up sessions before meetings officially start. It’s lonely to work alone constantly.
- Technical and connectivity issues – “Hello!!! Can you hear me?!” during an important meeting with a client or the CEO can seem career-breaking. Remote work has brought various technical issues that employees have to deal with ranging from internet connectivity to machine malfunction. This additional layer of stress was not present during in-person work sessions.
- Overworking – It’s now easier for employees to start late, work early, skip lunch and work into the night. Most employees have failed to demarcate “work-time” and “home-time” which has led to an increase in overworking and, consequently, burnout.
How can organisations help build employee mental and emotional resilience?
- Communication – Employees want to feel included and know what’s happening in the organisation. I recommend regular town halls, virtual meet-ups, and avenues like newsletters to make employees feel included. This reduces employee anxiety that they are out of the “knowledge loop”. Additionally, increased communication has been related to employee productivity (Alexander et al., 2021). Therefore both the employee and organisation win!
- Prioritise mental health – Instead of pretending that everything is business as usual, employers can take a proactive stance around the implications of remote work on employee wellbeing. Part of tackling this challenge includes providing employees with additional mental-health support. This can be done through virtual counselling, virtual wellbeing sessions or subscriptions to mindfulness applications such as Headspace or Calm. Additionally, employers can encourage employees who are struggling mentally and emotionally to open up so that they can be provided with additional support. This can only be done if the organisational culture encourages psychological health.
- Leverage technology and set clear procedures – Several free and paying technological tools exist that can make remote work easy. These include Trello, Slack, Microsoft Teams and Google Applications. These allow organisations to keep track of their various employee activities and also reduce the constant video conference calls. Additionally, having very clear procedures for how things should be done reduces employee confusion and dependence on managers. While these require significant effort to create, the returns are worth the effort, resulting in clear expectations and deliverables.
How can employees boost their mental and emotional resilience?
- Avoid multitasking – While it’s easy to assume you can do your emails while on a video conference call, this is not the case. For most people switching between tasks costs them 40% productivity (Fosslein & Duffy, 2020). Because while it may appear that you are saving time, you are expending more energy which results in more significant fatigue. Therefore, save yourself the mental anguish and do one thing at a time.
- Ask for help – You do need to suffer in silence. Tell someone if you think you’re burnt out and require leave or additional support. While there is still a stigma in society around mental health issues, the 21st century has seen greater acceptance of the relationship between employee productivity and mental wellbeing. If you had a debilitating illness, no one would judge you for going to the hospital, this is similar.
- Set precise work and home boundaries – With work and home life being intricately meshed,it’s not uncommon to hear people receiving and responding to emails at midnight. However, this does not allow you properly rest. Therefore, set clear boundaries for yourself, your workmates and your manager about when exactly you work. This allows your mind to switch off, rest and enjoy all the other things that encompass your life.
In conclusion, there is no magic solution to reducing remote work burnout. However, by acknowledging all the consequences of remote work, such as employee burnout, we can begin to carve a path for healthier working behaviours. I hope you’ll improve employee wellbeing and organisational productivity by introducing some of these interventions in your organisation and personal life.
This article was originally published in Nkwazi Magazine
Alexander, A., De Smet, A., Langstaff, M., & Ravid, D. (2021). What employees are saying about the future of remote work. Mckinsey Global Institute, April, 1–13. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/what-employees-are-saying-about-the-future-of-remote-work
Fosslein, L., & Duffy, M. W. (2020). How to Combat Zoom Fatigue. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/04/how-to-combat-zoom-fatigue
Smet, A. De, Dowling, B., Mysore, M., & Reich, A. (2021). It’s time for leaders to get real about hybrid. In McKinsey Quarterly (Issue July). https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/its-time-for-leaders-to-get-real-about-hybrid