Burnout and remote working

An exclusive chapter from 'Anti-burnout: How to Create a Psychologically Safe and High-performance Organisation' by Michael Drayton, published by Routledge.

Working from home has now become a regular part of many people’s working life. Following the COVID-19 crisis, many businesses rapidly moved to remote working. Most adapted well to the radically changed business environment. Changes that ordinarily would have taken months to implement happened within weeks. 

But what of those working from home? Most people didn’t have time to prepare for this massive change to their work and home life. Suddenly, they had to organise and motivate themselves. They had to find somewhere quiet to work, which involved negotiating with their families or others who shared their living space. Remote working was even more stressful for leaders and managers, who had to adapt quickly to leading and managing a remote-working team. It’s hard to adapt to novel ways of working, think strategically and motivate people when you are feeling overwhelmed yourself and the main communication tool you have is Zoom. 

Remote working can be great. There’s no long commute to worry about. You have a lot more flexibility in how you structure your time, and you get to spend more time at home. However, working from home can also have some unpleasant side effects that can increase the risk of burnout. 

In this chapter, I explore how remote working can contribute to burnout. I look at how to get the best from working from home, and how best to lead and manage a remote-working team. Finally, I offer some guidance on what to do if things go wrong. All of this is important knowledge, because not only is remote working here to stay, but it’s likely to grow and become a routine part of working life for many of us.

Enhanced productivity – but isolation

Most people who work from home work harder than they would in the office. Clare Kelliher and Deidre Anderson studied professional workers and found higher levels of job satisfaction, commitment to work and productivity in those working flexibly from home than those working just at the office (Kelliher & Anderson, 2010). The researchers used social exchange theory (Emerson, 1971) to explain this. The remote worker sees home working and flexibility as a benefit, and ‘repays’ this benefit with discretionary effort, by working harder. The researchers added that some employers mirror this mindset by regarding flexible working as a benefit that justifies their making unreasonable demands to get a return on their ‘generosity’.

This isn’t the only research that has found people are more productive when working from home. A study conducted in 2015 by Bloom and colleagues found a 13 per cent improvement in productivity from home workers (Bloom et al., 2015). Another study carried out by Glenn Dutcher found that people are more productive doing challenging, complicated or creative tasks at home (Dutcher, 2012). (When they have to do boring, repetitive or routine tasks, however, their productivity falls, and they would be better in the more structured office environment.)

Unfortunately, the improved productivity of home working comes at a cost. Loneliness and isolation are the biggest problems for people who work remotely. A shocking study by Julianne Holt-Lunstad from Brigham Young University analysed 148 research studies with 308,849 participants on the relationship between loneliness and premature mortality. The study found that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase the risk of premature death by 50 per cent. The magnitude of this effect is comparable with smoking and it exceeds many well-known risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010).

The optimal solution that incorporates the benefits of improved productivity and the benefits of social interaction and structure is a hybrid model, with people working from home part of the time with a day or two in the office.

Personality, remote working and burnout

Depending on your personality, working from home can be fantastic or a living hell. In Chapter Three, I discussed how we all have our own unique personality profile. Some of us are extroverted, are open to novel ideas and ways of working, and are agreeable in our dealings with others (to mention just three from the big five model). Others are introverted, don’t like change and are disagreeable when asked to do something they don’t want to do. 

These personality factors have a potent influence on our behaviour, but they don’t determine it entirely. To adapt, we learn to change our behaviour. Disagreeable people learn how to compromise, or at least to be more diplomatic in their conversations. More agreeable colleagues learn to be more assertive, even if being assertive makes them feel uncomfortable. This is an important point, because behaving in a manner that doesn’t fit with our core personality make-up is exhausting. An extrovert loves giving a presentation because it gives them energy. They get a buzz from it and feel excited afterwards. An introvert can give a similarly good presentation, but will feel anxious during the presentation and drained afterwards. 

We have all built up strategies over the years to manage those situations that we find difficult. We have developed our own psychological and emotional scaffolding to support the parts of our personality that lack strength in certain situations. For example, many people who are not very conscientious gravitate to highly structured corporate organisations that help them manage the disorganised and ‘lazy’ aspects of their personality. They enjoy structure, routines and being told what to do. These rigid structures are like a psychological scaffolding holding the persona together. A good example is the military. This is why some veterans struggle with civilian life, when the military ‘scaffolding’ is absent. 

The problem is that in times of crisis and change our psychological scaffolding gets dismantled. An extroverted person is likely to feel deprived of the social energy that keeps their spirits up when their work-based social life becomes 20 seconds of ‘How are you?’ at the start of each Zoom call. Similarly, an introverted person gets deprived of the ‘me time’ they need in order to recharge emotionally when they have to attend back-to-back Zoom calls, with no commute in between to be alone with their thoughts and de-stress.  

In this way, a person’s personality can contribute to the development of burnout when working remotely.

How to get the best from home working and avoid burnout

First of all, put some clear boundaries around your work. Have a proper start and finish time, and develop a disciplined way of managing the day. Have a shower, get dressed and then get started. If you’re an extrovert and get your energy from being around others, ensure that happens. Try to plan the day that you would like to have, or you will be at the mercy of other people’s plans. 

A ‘to do’ list can be a tyranny, where you never catch up and you feel overwhelmed. Instead, just block out time in your diary with things you need to do – and don’t forget to include breaks and exercise time.

Remember to do the things that make working from home enjoyable. Play the music you like, have a nap if you want and focus on the pleasurable things about your situation.

All these are fairly obvious ideas. Let’s go a bit deeper now.

Consider your personality

If you want to get the most from working from home, you need to do a bit of self-reflection. Think about the five factors of your personality and the person you are. Are you extroverted – do you get a lot of your energy from being around others? Are you an organised or disorganised person? Are you a worrier or more of a happy-go-lucky, ‘everything will turn out fine’ sort of person? 

The key to having an enjoyable time working from home is self-awareness. Once you’ve done this self-reflection, you can organise your work time in a way that plays to your strengths and compensates for your weaknesses. This is why a lot of advice you’ll see on social media about working from home misses the point. Advice that will be helpful for an extroverted person will be useless if you are an introverted person – in fact, if you follow it, it might make you feel a lot worse. So, you need to start with your personality and pick the advice that fits your personality and your strengths. 

Here’s an example of what I mean. Let’s say you are a conscientious person. You’ll find working from home to be a doddle. The enormous danger for you, though, is workaholism. There will be no-one there to notice when you need a break and tell you to go home. So, set some boundaries around your work. Have a specific time to start, break times and a definite finish time – and stick to them. You’ve probably heard of Parkinson’s Law, which says that work expands to fill the time allocated to it.

When you are working, minimise any interruptions. Switch off your email and mobile phone. If you can, only check your email messages maybe three times a day – otherwise leave it switched off. If you do this, you will be amazed how much work you get done.

Remove distractions

In his book Deep Work, American academic Cal Newport suggests removing all distractions from your workplace when you are working (Newport, 2016). Switch off your email if you can, or at least switch off the email notifications. I know that in practice many people find this hard – and of course the internet can be a distraction too. If you struggle with this you could try using a distraction blocking app like Freedom (https://freedom.to/dashboard). I use this app and it’s extremely effective. You set a list of all the things it should block, like the internet (or certain websites) and email, and then you can run scheduled/timed sessions so that you can focus on your work. The schedule aspect really helps with working for short bursts and taking a break, as you get a notification that the session is ended and this tells you it’s time to pause. The same goes for your phone.

Work in short bursts

In Deep Work, Newport also recommends structuring your work time into short bursts of activity broken up by rest periods. For example, do half an hour of intense deep work, then have a ten-minute break, and then go back to work for another half an hour.

Leading and managing the remote team

If you feel a bit unsettled about managing a remote-working team situation, you are right to, because leading a remote team differs greatly from leading a team in the office. It requires a different mindset – a distinct way of thinking about how you organise the work and how you manage all relationship issues that may arise.

Here are some practical things you can do to minimise stress and the consequent risk of burnout in remote workers.

Technology

One of the major sources of stress is the technology associated with home working. This may be obvious advice, but I think the place to start is making sure that everybody working from home has got the technology they need and that they know how to use it. You should check this out carefully. Many people don’t enjoy asking for help. They think, "If I ask for help, they’ll think I’m stupid." So, take the time to make sure all the tech is working and that people understand how to use it.

Once you’ve done this, consider how you organise your meetings to avoid ‘Zoom fatigue’. Recent research by Christoph Riedl and Anita Williams Woolley found that remote teams who communicate in short bursts of activity mixed in with periods of intense individual focus perform far better than teams whose communication is less structured. They called this ‘bursty work’ (Riedl & Wolley, 2017). 

Motivating the remote team

The hardest part of managing a remote team is keeping team members motivated.

Any leader or manager worth their salt knows that change makes employees anxious. Any psychologist worth their salt knows that when people get anxious, they look for support and guidance from authority figures in their life. If you are a manager, that’s you!

Now, this can be tough, because you may also feel anxious because of the changes in your working life. The first thing you need to do is protect your employees from your own anxiety. You should find the balance between acknowledging people’s worries and providing a positive and hopeful message for the future. It’s that balance between acknowledging anxiety and giving hope that is the key to motivation.

Check in

The most important thing you can do to motivate your staff is to be more psychologically and emotionally present for them. This doesn’t mean engaging them in interminably long Zoom meetings. Rather, it means just three short updates and check-ins a day. In a very helpful article in the Harvard Business Review (Larson et al., 2020), Barbara Larson and colleagues emphasised the importance of establishing scheduled, structured daily check-in meetings for managing remote teams. In addition, they highlighted that clarity of communication about expectations, ways of working and responsibility is essential in managing the remote team. 

Set a structure

Another factor that helps people who are feeling anxious is having clear boundaries around their life. They might not be able to predict their long-term future, but if they can at least predict how their day will be, that really helps.

Establish a clear start and finish for the working day at home. For example, you might want to announce when you ‘arrive at the office’. At the start of your day, send out a message to say ‘I’m at work’. This lets people know that they can contact you. Similarly, at the end of the working day, let people know you are going home – which is daft really, because you’re already at home, but you get my point. This will also give them permission to ‘go home’.

Also have prearranged break times. Try to fit these in with flexible working as best you can. The enormous advantage of working from home is being able to work flexibly, maybe starting early in the morning and having a nap in the afternoon (try that at the office!), so arrange breaks to best suit people’s needs.

Give positive feedback

Do your best to create a culture of appreciation (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005). When people are working at home, they get a lot less feedback from their manager. You need to counter this by upping your level of positive feedback for people’s work. In fact, I’d advise you to be over-the-top. To use a metaphor, it’s like you telling them from a distance they’ve done well, but because you’re at a distance, you need to shout a bit.

Here’s a technique you can use from Professor Martin Seligman and the positive psychology movement. Once a week, set aside ten minutes at the start of your team meeting and ask all the members to tell you three things that went well that week. This will help them focus on the positives of the situation rather than the negatives (Seligman, 2011). Most of us have a negativity bias (Kahneman, 2011) and focus on the threats rather than the enjoyable things that have happened. This exercise helps to recalibrate things.

Encourage sociability

Finally, build in some social interaction. Isolation and social disconnection are big problems in remote working. So, as a leader it’s important that you encourage opportunities for informal chitchat. This will support team cohesion and a sense of belonging, which otherwise can quickly dissolve in a crisis. Pair people up to have 15-minute online coffee breaks where the only rule is ‘no talking about work’. Try to organise some quizzes online, that kind of thing.

What to do if things go wrong

Things can sometimes go wrong with remote working. While most people enjoy working from home and perform better, others seem to flounder. Those who do not cope with remote working seem to fall into one of two distinct groups:

  • They lack motivation and disengage with their job. They struggle to get going and their performance is poor. 
  • They become overly dependent and seem to lose confidence in their abilities. These folk find it almost impossible to decide what to do and need constant validation of their work.

There is no great secret about managing this. It’s the same as managing difficulties in the office. It’s hard, and you can’t get away from that.

The key to managing difficulties well is good communication. If someone’s performance is poor when working at home, talk to them about it. Ask them how things are. Ask them what you can do to help them. They might be experiencing difficulties in their domestic situation. Or they might be the sort of person who just needs a lot of structure in their work life. 

Another reason for poor performance is that the person is experiencing problems with their mental health. In Chapter Two, I described what to look out for in people who are struggling with mental health problems, the obstacles to helping and what you can do to help. It’s just the same if you suspect one of your remote workers might be struggling with their mental health. The primary difference is that you will communicate with them over Zoom or telephone rather than face to face. This will result in much of the subtlety and nuance of the conversation being lost. You won’t be able to observe body language. So, bear this in mind when talking to the person you have concerns about. It might be easier to have this conversation using the telephone rather than video calling.

If you have done everything you can to help the person who is performing poorly, remember that just because the person is working from home, that doesn’t excuse them from your company’s performance-management policies and procedures. So, if the person doesn’t have any reasons for their poor performance, then it becomes a straightforward performance-management issue.

What about the leader?

The last thing I want to talk about is how you, as a leader, can manage your own well-being when working remotely. Catherine Sandler at the Tavistock Institute has done some interesting work on how extreme stress affects leadership style (Sandler, 2012).

In Figure 7.1, the triangle on the left shows three common leadership styles. At the top, you have high-energy, charismatic leaders; on the bottom left, you have warm, inclusive, team-building leaders; and on the bottom right, you have level-headed and analytical leaders. Most people lie somewhere in between these extremes but will prefer one.

When leaders experience severe pressure, they get uneasy and their leadership style changes to that shown in the right-hand triangle. Charismatic leaders go into fight mode and end up being irritable and aggressive. Warm, inclusive leaders go into flight mode and disappear into the team, wanting to be everybody’s friend, rather than the boss. Finally, calm, analytical leaders go into freeze mode, shutting their office door and finding it very difficult to decide what needs to be done. Again, these are extreme reactions I’m describing and most people will fall somewhere in between. 

Take a few moments to think about Figure 7.1 and where you might be on those triangles.

To reiterate, the biggest factor that protects people from burning out is the ability to switch off from work. Successful people work very hard when they’re at work, but when they finish, they can immediately switch their attention to things outside of work, such as family or hobbies. In contrast, a person on the road to burnout will cook a meal or try to get to sleep, but will be still thinking about work. This is the biggest and most robust finding in the literature on avoiding burnout. So have strict boundaries between work and your personal life and try to switch off when you finish.

Chapter takeaways

  • Remote working is growing and becoming a routine part of many people’s working life.
  • Remote working is a positive experience for most people and employers. But it can also increase the risk of burnout.
  • People working from home are more productive than office-based employees. This applies to complex, creative tasks, but less so to dull, routine tasks.
  • The secret to successful remote working is adapting the workflow to complement the personality. For example, people who are highly extroverted enjoy social contact and people lacking conscientiousness enjoy a lot of structure.
  • If you manage a remote team, you need a lot of psychological presence.
  • The most effective workflow is to use ‘bursty communication’: short bursts of intense communication followed by long periods of deep work.
  • The big problem with remote working is social isolation and loneliness. Combat this by encouraging online social and work/task interaction.

Dr Michael Drayton is a clinical psychologist, executive coach and organisational consultant. He coaches on the Executive MBA and Oxford High Performance Leadership Programme at Said Business School, University of Oxford. Mike contributes to the Cabinet Office National Leadership Programme and is a Fellow of the Cabinet Office Emergency Planning College, specialising in psychological  resilience and leading under pressure. Mike was educated at LSE, Oxford Saïd Business School and the University of Birmingham.

“I've never been busier. As psychologists we really should know better, shouldn't we? It's our high factor Agreeableness personality that causes the trouble.”

- This feature has been extracted from Anti-burnout: How to Create a Psychologically Safe and High-performance Organisation by Michael Drayton, available from Routledge with a 20% discount (please enter code ESBER at the checkout).

References

Bloom, N., Liang, J., Roberts, J. & Ying, Z. J. (2015). ‘Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment’. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 30(1), 165–218.

Cooperrider, D. L. & Whitney, D. (2005). Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. San Francisco, Calif.: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Dutcher, E. (2012). ‘The Effects of Telecommuting on Productivity: An Experimental Examination. The Role of Dull and Creative Tasks’. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization84(1), 355–63. 

Emerson, R. M. (1971). ‘Social Exchange Theory’. Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 2, 335–62. 

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B. & Layton, J. B. (2010, July). Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Medicine7(7). Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. London and New York: Penguin Books.

Kelliher, C. & Anderson, D. (2010). ‘Doing More with Less? Flexible Working Practices and the Intensification of Work’. Human Relations63(1), 83–106. 

Larson, B. Z., Vroman, S. R. & Makarius, E. E. (2020). ‘A Guide to Managing Your (Newly) Remote Workers’. Harvard Business Review, 18 March.

Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work : Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. London: Piatkus.

Riedl, C. & Woolley, A. W. (2017). ‘Teams vs. Crowds: A Field Test of the Relative Contribution of Incentives, Member Ability, and Emergent Collaboration to Crowd-Based Problem Solving Performance’. Academy of Management Discoveries3(4), 382–403.

Sandler, C. (2012). ‘The Emotional Profiles Triangle: Working with Leaders Under Pressure’. Strategic HR Review11(2), 65–71.

Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being – and How to Achieve Them. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing. 

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