Is There a Link between Flexible Working and Employee Burnout?

In a recent (2021) survey run by Deloitte, more than three-quarters of employees say they have experienced burnout at their current job. Has flexible working (be it full remote or hybrid) made the situation worse or has it been proven as a burnout remedy?

In this article, we take an honest look at what really happened since flexible work became closer to the norm than ever, in 2020 – and how burnout changed its face to adapt to the “new normal”. 

Read on to find out more. 

What is Employee Burnout?

Employee burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that can be caused by excessive stress. Burnout leads to a loss of productivity, motivation, and creativity in the workplace.

Before the pandemic, employee burnout costs rose up to $190 billion a year. Even more, the World Health Organization estimated that no less than $1 trillion is lost every year as a result of productivity loss caused by depression and anxiety.

Burnout lies at the foundation of these stats, along with stress, increasing demand from employers, the uncertainty of the times we live in, and a series of other factors that have, in reality, made the situation even shakier for a lot of people around the world.

tired employee in a virtual meeting

Despite popular belief, burnout is not simply about working too hard. It’s a syndrome that can be brought on by any number of factors, including:

  • Excessive job demands
  • Lack of control over tasks and work-related situations
  • Unclear job expectations
  • Unrealistic deadlines
  • Micromanagement
  • Poor work-life balance
  • A lack of social support at work
  • Frequent overtime

Burnout - The Signs to Look Out For

Fortunately for both companies and employees, burnout doesn't appear out of thin air -- or not usually, at least. There are signs you can look out for, so you can prevent yourself, as well as your teams, from burning out completely.

Some of the main signs of employee burnout include the following:

  • Absenteeism. This ranges from coming in late or leaving early to taking excessive sick days.
  • Cynicism and hostility. employees who are burned out may become negative and irritable, and they may start voicing their displeasure with the company openly.
  • Exhaustion. This may manifest as physical symptoms, such as fatigue, headaches, and gastrointestinal problems, or as emotional symptoms, such as feeling overwhelmed or constantly stressed.
  • Isolation. Employees who are burned out may withdraw from their colleagues and stop participating in office activities.
  • Decreased productivity. Burned-out employees may have difficulty completing tasks or meeting deadlines.
  • Lack of focus. Employees who are burned out may have trouble paying attention to their work and making decisions.

It does, indeed, feel like an inescapable maze: a nightmare you can't actually step out of or a pattern you cannot fully break. As you will read further in the article, however, things don't have to be this way.

Signs of Work from Home Burnout

Working from home was, at least initially, very promising. After a decade of being told we're all going to be able to work remotely and finally drop the dreaded commute, the final catalyst for en-masse remote workout policies was, as we all know it, the pandemic.

And thus began a new chapter in the Work from Home experiment. Where most expected productivity to drop fantastically, it was proven that people felt more productive working from home.

... But it seems there was a caveat with these reports. In some cases, the same employees and employers who reported increased productivity tended to report overtime as well.

And so, new questions popped into everyone's mind: is remote work (particularly forced and during a pandemic) causing people to experience a new kind of burnout?

Turns out that, yes, burnout did start to peek its ugly horns from behind pixelated screens and endless back-to-back meetings. And the more people experienced it, the easier it became for leaders, Human Resources, and employees alike to spot the signs of this new type of burning out: the one that happens on your couch, where you've been dreaming to work on since the dawn of email and Skype.

employee burnout

Some of the most recognizable signs of work from home burnout include:

  • Feeling overwhelmed. This may be due to the fact that you're trying to do too many things at once or that you feel like you can't control your environment.
  • Feeling isolated. It's easy to feel lonely and disconnected when you're working from home.
  • Lack of communication. This may be due to the isolation mentioned earlier, but can also be due to a lack of clarity about your role and responsibilities.
  • Having (even more) trouble focusing. Although this might not stand true for everyone, it was a recurrent symptom for many. It makes sense: some people found the cozy environment of their homes more productive, while others found that working with your life partner and kids in the same space might not be the best incentive for getting things done (and during working hours).
  • Hopelessness. Burning out can make you feel a lot less hopeful about your future -- both at work and in your personal life.
  • Worrying and stressing out a lot. Burnout and stress have an almost unbreakable connection. One causes the other, and the other one makes the first one stronger, in a cycle of neverending worries that causes more stress, less productivity, and more burnout.

Although the signs of work from home burnout and that of "in-office" burnout are very similar, there are special nuances that come with burning out... from home. Most times, those nuances are embedded in isolation, poor communication, seemingly endless lists of tasks, and lack of the very natural, in-person collegiality so many experienced before working from home full-time.

Top Ways to Fight the Effects of Burnout

There's not much good news with burnout -- just like there isn't with stress and anxiety, for that matter. However, there is a slight silver lining in everything: if burnout cannot be prevented (and it happens to the best of us), then you should know that its effects can be counteracted.

Here are some essential things to do when you fight the effects of burnout:

  • Talk to someone. This is one of the most important things you can do when you feel like you're burning out. Talk to your partner, your friends, your family, or a therapist. Expressing what you're feeling and how you're doing will help you feel better and might also lighten you up -- plus, chances are you will realize you're not alone in this and that many other people (including some of those closest to you) experience it.
  • Take breaks. Part of why burnout is so easy to "let itself in" when working remotely is because breaks tend to be fewer and farther in between. The back-to-back meetings, an a-sync collaboration that hasn't been mastered completely, lack of proper communication and guidelines, and even lack of feedback entirely -- they can all push you to stay a little longer, skip another lunch, and focus on your screen for hours at an end. Get a stopwatch (you can literally Google it) and set yourself to take short breaks every hour, as well as a proper lunch every day. They're priceless.
  • Cut ties with work when the day is done. No more answering emails, no more "let me just open the laptop again for a minute". Shut down, step away from the work device(s), and live your life outside of work. It sounds simple in theory, it's less easy to actually bring into practice -- but it's absolutely worth it.
  • Start a routine. Routines help us structure our days, weeks, and lives in general. They give us a sense of calm and control, and they can help us be more productive (both with work tasks and with "at home" tasks as well). Try to wake up at the same time, have lunch at the same time, go to sleep at the same time, and, in general, try to bring structure and order into your daily life. It might seem boring, but it's precisely how healthy work habits are built.

employee is finished her workday on time

Avoid Burnout with Flexible Work Environments

After two years of on-and-off lockdowns and occasionally confusing regulations, most employees are now ready to... well, not return to the office entirely.

With all its shortcomings, remote work does pose a ton of benefits, so it makes sense that, so many months later after the first lockdown, people have understood that working from home comes with ups...and downs.

The downside of everything remote work-related can be balanced out (and even canceled entirely) by a flexible work environment (or a hybrid one, if that's what you prefer to call it).

Not only is this what people want, but it seems that research shows that flexible work environments are also likely to be more productive and produce less... burned-out employees.

In essence, a hybrid work model gives you the best of both worlds: the comfort of home and the structure of an office, the flexibility you need to adapt to changing lives, changing scenarios, dreams of working on a beach, protecting your precious life/ work balance, and so on.

Flexible work can be the medicine your burned-out team needs, regardless of whether they've been working fully remotely or fully in-office. In essence, the hybrid work "treatment" can help your employees let go of burnout and embrace:

Healthy Breaks during the Work Day

As mentioned before, breaks are essential for avoiding burnout, but they're also essential for our general health and wellbeing. A break could be anything from five to ten minutes of walking around your neighborhood, chatting on the phone with a friend, reading a chapter of a book, or playing with your pet. It's important to do something that takes you away from your work and relaxes your brain, so you can start over with a fresh mind and a rested body.

Your Appreciation

As a team manager, HR, or business owner, you absolutely want to show your employees how much you appreciate them. Building a flexible working policy goes beyond basic wellness programs: it taps into your team's needs, offering them the freedom to choose where to work from (and maybe even how). Allowing them to work in a hybrid work environment means you allow them to see your appreciation -- and thus, be more satisfied at work.

manager congratulates employee

Work-Life Balance

Hybrid work has its own set of challenges, but it also allows for a better work-life balance. When we're not chained to our desks, we can dedicate more time to the things that matter to us outside of work. Whether that means finally being able to take your dog for a walk in the middle of the day, spending more time with the little ones, or finally keeping up with that Spanish streak in Duolingo -- that's up to you. The point is that hybrid work allows clear delimitation between work and home while still giving you those sweet extra hours you need to live a fulfilling, happy life.

Remote work isn't perfect. And as we've clearly experienced it for the past... decades (maybe even more?), in-office work has its pretty obvious downsides too. A world where everyone can work both in-office and remotely is, however, a world where employees can build their own work schedules, be with their families, be more loyal to their employers, be more productive when they're at work, and, ultimately, be less stressed and burned out.

Sure, hybrid work isn't perfect either. But it might just be the best solution we have to bridge the gap between "at home" and "at work" in a balanced, flexible, and productive way. Even more than that, it might just be the model to finally teach us all to stay away from burnout and embrace the joy of work without the darkness of wearing yourself thin.

Topics: Employee well-being

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