Japan is notorious for its work ethics and how people work to exhaustion, they even have a term for death by overwork—Karoshi.
The same malaise seems to be plaguing the remote work brigade. Not literally death by exhaustion, but certainly burnout due to the inability to switch off from work.
The pandemic has forced most companies to adopt the work from home model. With many regions still reeling under a second or third surge of the virus, this remote model is now here to stay. The transition to remote work from office-based work was sudden, and most people and organizations did not have the time to adapt to the new model.
People are still trying to grapple with smooth communication channels, the constant back and forth on video calls, and the newness of working from the dining table or the bedroom with constant interruptions from family and pets.
People worried about holding on to their jobs in these tough times are overcompensating with being constantly accessible to their superiors through different time zones even sometimes. A NordVPN study found that workers across the U.S., Canada, and Europe have added two to three extra hours to their workdays. In other words, people are replacing their commutes with more time at their desks.
A July Monster.com survey found that 69% of respondents have experienced burnout since the pandemic started, up from 52% in May.
A major cause of burnout, according to a dipstick study of people working from home, is the need to be in video streaming meetings with team members, supervisors, etc. A major part of the working day is spent attending these meetings, which by their very nature are exhausting. The need to be constantly staring at a screen, with the absence of any human body language cues can be draining. In a face-to-face meeting, the nonverbal clues play a big part in the discussions and meetings. They relieve the monotony of interaction and add to the takeaways. All this is absent in a video meeting and in the process, the brain tries to overcompensate, which is tiring and unhealthy in the long run.
Burnout has been recognized by the World Health Organization in its international classification of diseases as a widespread “occupational phenomenon” characterized by
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy, depletion or exhaustion, negative feelings or cynicism about one’s job, and reduced effectiveness at work.
It is yet to be recognized as a medical condition by WHO.
Burnout, according to a study done by the American Institute of Stress, costs the U.S. more than $300 billion a year in absenteeism, medical, legal, insurance, and diminished productivity.
So how do you handle this burned-out state?
The first step is to acknowledge that you have reached the tipping point of your work capacity reserves and need to disconnect.
Set boundaries at the workplace: Do not try to overcompensate for working from home.
Let your family know that you are working and you cannot be disturbed as and when somebody needs your attention.
In an office in an eight-hour working day, it is not all systems go for all eight hours. You take breaks in between, talk to colleagues, have social time-outs. In a remote work environment, these external stimuli are missing. So you need to compensate for that. Set time aside for a walk away from your work desk.
Gaze out of the window, and socialize with a colleague, on text or by phone even. And when the day ends, disconnect—no need to work extra time or take up office work just because you are sitting at home.
Find a relaxing hobby: It can be exercising, doing yoga. Playing scrabble or even just colouring, painting, learning to dance, or gardening. Take a walk if possible.
Getting the feel-good hormones going will suffuse the body with better energy.
Share the burden: Talk to people about your experience and ask for help. Workplaces now acknowledge the phenomenon and are more open towards it.
Organization’s role: Systems should be in place to encourage employee well-being. Encourage employees to take time off.
“At an organizational level, one top tip is for the business to accept that burnout happens and that a culture that fosters well-being and good mental health is a must-have. A foundation building block is to conduct regular stress risk assessments (and act on the output),” advised Kat Hounsell, mental health and well-being coach who runs an organization, Everyday people.
A happy culture at the workplace where the workers are contented and satisfied is essential.
“Burnout takes many forms,” Jason Fried, the CEO of basecamp said. “Give people plenty of time to themselves, lots of autonomy to make decisions, ample time off, sabbaticals every three years, [and] outlets to discuss stress.”
Setting expectations regarding job roles and output is also important, he added.