Tips for burnout-proofing remote teams

The pandemic forced companies to try out healthier working practices


In 30 seconds:

  • Burnout at work has worsened significantly recently
  • The phenomenon of ‘reverse presenteeism’ is exacerbating the problem
  • There are many initiatives businesses can put in place to help employees feel more supported and understood

There’s a prevailing view that we work more nowadays than ever before. In fact, the opposite is true: in most Western countries today the average working week is 40 hours, whereas 100 years ago it was 60.

Getting to the bottom of burnout

So why are people burning out more than ever in the modern world? The first clue lies in the World Health Organization definition of burnout: “Chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. The key is the second part of that line: our propensity to burn out is determined as much by how we manage the workload as it is by the sheer size of the workload.

Why has burnout become so much worse recently? A Censuswide survey of 1,400 UK working adults commissioned by Spill, a mental health support provider for employees, found that a staggering 79% felt “close to burning out” at some point during 2020.

Robust data on how working hours have changed since the start of the pandemic is hard to come by. Much of it seems to show a drop in average working hours for fulltime workers, but it’s likely that some of this could be explained by the effects of underemployment.

What has unquestionably changed is the way we manage our workload: how it feels, how we distribute it throughout the day, how often we think about work, how much control we feel over it, the amount of emotional recognition or reward we get from it, and the feelings of support and solidarity we have with colleagues and managers. In short, the relationship we have with work is what appears to be dramatically different now. The Censuswide survey data strongly showed three notable negative shifts in our relationship with work since the beginning of lockdown. We explore these shifts in more detail, then look at some initiatives that companies are experimenting with to try and counteract them.

Work boundaries and ‘reverse presenteeism’

‘Presenteeism’ denotes the scenario when a person is physically in the workplace but isn’t actually working. In the old world of the full-time office, this typically meant they were physically present (at their desk) but, for whatever reason, not engaging in productive work. In workplaces with a long-hours culture, presenteeism can involve people staying later in the office for the optics rather than the outputs.

In the remote and hybrid working world since lockdown began, the traditional work-home boundary has been blurred. On the plus side you can lie in a bit later or go for a walk in the afternoon, but on the other hand it’s also easier for work to bleed into leisure time. In 2020, 54% of people worked more on evenings and weekends than the previous year.

And without being physically present in the office, it seems people are having to find other ways to signal their effort and presence digitally; 45% felt they had to respond to messages out of work hours and 54% were worried about being seen as not working hard enough.

A staggering 79% of UK working adults felt “close to burning out” at some point during 2020

This is the phenomenon of ‘reverse presenteeism’: instead of being in the office and not working, people are at home and working out of hours.

When the feeling of social and status recognition is less direct and less frequent, we end up craving it even more. But those who send out-of-hours messages often don’t realise the effect it’s having. Research by London Business School PhD candidate Laura Giurge, published in Harvard Business Review recently, showed how the senders of such messages consistently underestimate how compelled receivers feel to reply right away – even if the message isn’t urgent.

Initiatives to help employees carve out clearer boundaries

  • Employees at Hedgehog Lab, a digital product agency, are encouraged to change their Slack status emoji when having lunch, exercising or walking the dog during the working day.
  • Wieden + Kennedy London, an advertising agency, trialled asking people not to email between 7pm and 8am.
  • Jimmy Etheredge, the CEO of Accenture in the U.S., recently issued a rallying cry for people to “take back lunch”, mandating an hour of screen-free time to recharge in the middle of the day.
  • A raft of email and Slack extensions allows people to schedule messages to be sent the next working day, instead of at ungodly hours.

The rise of holiday guilt

In the overheard words of a software engineer recently, “the ROI of holiday has plummeted in the last year.” The irony of holiday needing to have an ROI aside, there appears to be truth to the sentiment: with not much to do during time off besides stay at home, the allure of rolling over annual leave to the next year increases.

And, as everyone knows you’ll probably just be sitting at home during your time off, it can be harder to mentally switch off from work, and feelings of guilt can set in. Leaving your colleagues with a deadline to hit is one thing when you’ve got a flight to catch; leaving them with a deadline when you’ll be in your living room is another.

Fifty-one per cent of the people we surveyed reported feeling guilty about taking their full holiday allowance in 2020, and 30% of tech workers in particular took less holiday than previous years out of feelings of guilt.

Why is this a problem? Because people need regular time off to perform effectively. One study showed that a vicious cycle begins when people don’t take time off for a while: being tired, they perceive work demands to be greater and get overwhelmed, causing them to focus more intently on their work, with a detrimental effect on communication and collaboration, which in turn causes them and the team to be less effective.

Initiatives to help people take more time off

  • One thing we’re doing at Spill is to make the percentage of quarterly team holiday days taken an official company KPI, because what gets measured gets focused on.
  • The best way to avoid holiday FOMO could be to give everyone a holiday at the same time. That’s what UK TV broadcaster Channel 4 did recently when it gave everyone an extra ‘wellbeing day’ off work to spend however they liked.
  • Restaurant chain Honest Burgers is letting every employee take a one-month paid sabbatical between now and the end of 2023.

Feeling less supported and less understood

Half of the employees surveyed felt their manager wasn’t equipped to support them with their mental health, and perhaps it’s no surprise that 38% of UK workers surveyed felt less supported by their colleagues over the last year: physical separation removes all the water-cooler chats, lunch breaks and so on while working next to each other.

But what was less expected was the rise in interpersonal work issues during 2020: 50% felt there were more instances of misunderstanding, 41% agreed that passive-aggressiveness had become more noticeable, and 75% thought interpersonal issues took longer to resolve. Why does this lead to burnout? As burnout is as much to do with how we manage our workload as the workload itself, if we feel we don’t have a strong and supportive base around us, the same amount of work can be perceived as much more difficult to deal with.

Initiatives to help people feel more supported and understood

  • User manuals are a great way to proactively avoid misunderstandings. London tech company Unrival uses them to help employees be clearer with each other, especially when remote. A user manual is basically a cheat sheet on how to work with someone: how they like to receive feedback, how to know if they’re annoyed, and so on. It’s all the stuff we pick up over years of working with someone – but it’s far more helpful to know it explicitly and upfront.
  • Line managers are key to employees feeling supported. As burnout and poor mental health became more prevalent over the last year, the need for managers to be properly trained in this area became clear.
  • Therapy and counselling are proven to help employees feel more emotionally stable in as few as one or two sessions. Last year saw many companies increase their mental-health support offerings to employees.

Will Allen-Mersh is a Partner at Spill, a startup offering mental-health support to employees through Slack. He is a Guest Speaker on the Strategic Brand Management elective of London Business School’s MBA and Executive MBA programmes.

Illustration by Spencer Wilson


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