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Gleb Tsipursky

Health Care

Recognize the 12 Problems Leading to Work-From-Home Burnout

The problem is a lot more complex than you think

Published: Monday, April 19, 2021 - 12:03

Have you or your employees been feeling work-from-home burnout (WFH) and Zoom fatigue these past months despite the supposed convenience of working from home and using video conferences to meet?

Due to the computer-based nature of their work, many quality professionals have been in the privileged position of working remotely throughout the pandemic. Yet despite the safety benefits of doing so, burnout has been an increasingly worrisome issue, harming retention, morale, engagement, and quality decision-making.

Still, most appreciate the benefits of working from home. Most employees preferred to work remotely more than half the time or even permanently after the pandemic. That’s a huge shift from previous surveys where a small minority wanted to work virtually, according to many recent surveys.

Most employers support their employees working remotely part- or full-time even after the pandemic. They find that working from home improves productivity because employees don’t have to deal with a commute and other hassles of coming to the office. Doing so allows companies to downsize office space, saving money, as many plan to do. Moreover, if at least some employees worked from home permanently, employers could then hire employees from anywhere, greatly expanding the talent pool available to them. Likewise, they could save money on salaries for employees who lived in lower cost-of-living areas.

Yet to do this requires addressing WFH burnout. Unfortunately, the vast majority of efforts to address it try to treat the symptoms without addressing the root causes.

The problem stems from companies failing to adapt internally to the impact of Covid-19 and the post-Covid recovery. Most failed to anticipate the long-term consequences of Covid, and had to make an abrupt shift to their employees working remotely. Everyone was in emergency mode and adapted their existing ways of interacting in “office culture” to remote work. They focused, naturally and appropriately, on accomplishing the necessary tasks of the organization.

However, they left behind the social and emotional glue that truly holds together internal teams and gives employees a sense of fulfillment and energy.

That’s fine for an emergency, a week or two. Yet Covid is not an emergency. It has been a slow-moving train wreck, which will last until at least the end of 2021 if not longer.

What companies need to do is to stop thinking of Covid as an emergency situation to be handled via operational tactics. Instead, they must approach Covid and the post-Covid world as our new abnormal reality, and use a strategic approach to survive and thrive in this new world.

Companies should understand that the fundamental root cause of WFH burnout stems from organizations adapting their existing ways of interacting within an office culture to remote work. To address this problem requires a strategic reevaluation of their internal structure, culture, and norms for a much more virtual environment for the foreseeable future. Otherwise, using office-style culture to conduct virtual work is simply forcing a square peg into a round hole. You can do it if you push hard enough, but you’ll break off the corners, in this case the social and emotional glue that bonds employees into a company culture. That peg will do in an emergency but in the longer run will wobble and eventually break.

12 problems leading to WFH burnout

Combining my expertise in emotional and social intelligence with research on the specific problems of working from home during Covid, I’ve untangled these two concepts—the new abnormal and a disrupted office culture—into a series of factors: 

1. Deprivation of our basic human need for meaning and purpose. Perhaps the biggest problem is that most of us don't realize we aren’t experiencing just WFH burnout. We’re also deprived of the fulfillment of basic human needs of meaning and purpose that we get from work. Our sense of self and identity, our narratives of ourselves, and how we derive meaning in our lives, are tied to our work. That’s all severely disrupted by shifting to remote work.

2. Deprivation of our basic human need for connection. For many of us, our work community offers a key source of fulfillment of the need for connection. WFH cuts us off from much of our ability to connect effectively to our colleagues as human beings, rather than little squares on a screen.

3. Deprivation of building trust. In office settings, it’s easy to build trust through informal interactions. This building of trust doesn’t happen naturally in virtual settings. There’s a reason teams that start off as virtual, but later meet in person at a company, work together substantially better after doing so. By contrast, teams that shift from in-person settings to virtual ones gradually lose that sense of shared humanity and trust.

4. Deprivation of mentoring and informal professional development. A critical part of on-the-job learning stems from informal mentoring from senior colleagues. It also comes from the observational professional development you get from seeing how your colleagues do their jobs. Losing this mentoring has proven especially challenging for younger employees.

5. It’s not simply “Zoom fatigue.” It’s a real experience, but it’s not about Zoom itself, or any other video-conference software. The big challenge stems from our intuitive expectations that virtual meetings will bring us energy by connecting us to people, yet they fail to get this basic need of ours met. In-person meetings, even if they’re strictly professional, still get us to connect on a human-to-human level. By contrast, our emotions just don’t process video-conference meetings as a true connection on a human-to-human, gut level.  

6. Forcing a square peg into a round hole. Many companies try to replace the office-culture glue of social and emotional connection through Zoom happy hours and similar activities that transpose in-person bonding events into virtual formats. Unfortunately, such activities don’t work well. As with other video conferences, we have intuitively elevated expectations. We end up disappointed and frustrated by failing to have our needs met.

7. Lack of skills in virtual work technology tools. This problem leads to lowered productivity and frustrating experiences for those who need to collaborate.

8. Lack of skills in effective virtual communication. It’s notoriously hard to communicate effectively even in person. Effective communication becomes much more difficult when in-office teams become virtual teams.

9. Lack of skills in effective virtual collaboration. There’s no natural way to have the needed casual interactions that are vital to effective collaboration and teamwork. Body language and voice tone are important to noticing brewing people problems, and virtual communication provides us fewer opportunities to notice such issues.

10. Lack of accountability. In-office environments allow for natural ways to hold employees accountable. Leaders can easily walk around the office, visually observing what’s going on and checking in with their direct reports on their projects. The same applies to peer-to-peer accountability: It’s much easier to ignore an email with a question than someone stopping you in the hallway or standing in the doorway to your office. You’ll need to replace that accountability with a different structure for remote work.

11. Poor work-from-home environments. Some employees might have access to quiet spaces and stable internet connection, while others may not. Given the restrictions brought about by the pandemic, overhauling work spaces will take significant time and resources not available to many. 

12. Poor work/life boundaries. Ineffective separation of work and life stems from both employer and employee actions. In the long term, doing so causes lowered productivity, increased errors, and eventual burnout.  

Conclusion

Work-from-home burnout and Zoom fatigue are much more complex than they appear. Companies need to implement a wholesale strategic shift to reframe your company culture and policies from the “emergency mode” of working from home to remote work being the new normal. 

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About The Author

Gleb Tsipursky’s picture

Gleb Tsipursky

Gleb Tsipursky is on a mission to protect quality leaders from dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases by developing the most effective decision-making strategies. A best-selling author, he wrote Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (2019). His expertise comes from 20+ years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training as the CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts, and over 15 years in academia as a behavioral economist and cognitive neuroscientist. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, Twitter@gleb_tsipursky, Instagram@dr_gleb_tsipursky, LinkedIn, and register for his Wise Decision Maker Course.