“On your deathbed, you never wish you worked harder.”
— My Dad
Enough already! Remember when this was all going to be over in a few months? Many of us sheltered-in-place, homeschooled children and adapted to remote working with the belief that we’d be back to our normal routines by the summer. Instead, almost 9 months later, we are likely entering the most challenging months of this pandemic.
Remote working burnout is yet another negative consequence of COVID. At a time when our stress levels are already elevated, job-related burnout is on the rise. A recent survey conducted by FlexJobs and Mental Health America found that 75% of people have experienced burnout at work.¹ And according to a MetLife report on the mental health of the U.S. workforce, 66% of employees report symptoms of burnout while the same percentage of employers expect a mental health crisis in the U.S. within three years.² Now is the time to take proactive steps to address this growing problem.
Here are 6 ways to avoid remote working burnout:
1. Have fewer Zoom³ calls.
Now that nearly 70% of the world is working remotely,⁴ how many of us long for those commutes that we used to dread? Instead, our commutes have been replaced with more Zoom calls. I have several coaching clients who are not only working longer hours but are seeing their families less despite being home with them all day long. The lack of separation between work and home is a big contributor to remote working burnout. In this new world in which work/life boundaries are blurred, it is imperative to create separation for you and your team:
Establish appropriate times for meetings so there is a start and end to the workday. For colleagues in different time zones, it’s even more important to outline appropriate times for meetings.
Make your team’s calendars accessible to all. Encourage the scheduling of meetings only at times that work for all participants.
Have conference calls (instead of video calls) when appropriate so colleagues can get off their screens. I do phone calls with the majority of my coaching clients and encourage them to go for a walk during our calls. There are many benefits (more on this below), but a key one is that they focus more on a call when away from their screens.
Establish a “No Meeting Zone.” This is a best practice I had a few clients establish before COVID since “meeting overload” long predated the pandemic. It is another negative trend that the pandemic has exacerbated. “No Meeting Zones” are not meant to be replaced with busy work, but rather a chance to be creative, ideate, or connect with co-workers (all things that Zoom calls usually detract from).
2. Shorten your Zoom calls.
Another big contributor to remote working burnout is the lack of breaks between meetings. We no longer walk from our offices to meetings or from meeting to meeting. Similar to our commutes, these natural breaks provided important downtime and a chance to turn our brains off. In this new remote world, meetings are usually back to back to back with most running late, which then causes the next meeting to start late and so on and so on.
Shorten 1-hour meetings to 50 minutes and 30-minute meetings to 25 minutes. For those that use Google Workspace or Microsoft Outlook, there are even default settings that will automatically make this change for you.⁵
3. Provide more job control.
A positive trend that COVID has accelerated is increased work flexibility and job control. In a recent announcement about going “Virtual First”, Dropbox explained that one of the best ways to increase employee productivity is to embrace a non-linear workday.⁶ One of my clients has a coder in Colorado that does her best coding between 3-6 am. She then takes a hike during the middle of the day to refresh and innovate. Providing more flexibility and control to your colleagues is an important way to address remote working burnout. A recent study on the effects of remote working found that our mental health and mortality have a strong correlation with the amount of autonomy we have at our job.⁷
Empower your colleagues to create their own schedules. Encourage them to block out times on their calendars when they are doing school pick-ups, caring for elderly dependents, having lunch with the family, or taking a walk. In addition to improving mental health, the majority of our innovation and ideation occurs when we are not focused on the task at hand.⁸
4. Avoid diving into the work.
Another important, but underrated, aspect of our pre-COVID office experience was the small talk with our colleagues between meetings or at the water cooler. It was a chance to discuss something other than work. We would ask about each other's families, what we were watching on Netflix or our plans for the weekend. Making personal connections is invaluable in enhancing our professional relationships and improving team productivity. As the legendary “Trillion Dollar Coach” Bill Campbell explained: “People on your team are people, and the whole team becomes stronger when you break down the walls between the professional and human personas.”⁹
Start each meeting by connecting personally. Ask your colleagues about their weekends, how their kids are doing, if their dog is feeling better, etc. This provides a mental break from back to back to back meetings and is a great way to break down those walls.
Schedule “No agenda catch up” meetings. The personal connection that was so imperative to your team’s success before this crisis, is that much more important now. It’s a great way to demonstrate to your colleagues that it’s not just about getting the work done. As my colleagues Peter Watts and Gavin McMahon suggested, a wonderful way to connect with a co-worker is Counting Penguins!
5. Sit less, get outside, and exercise more.
Some important scientifically proven facts about our health: sitting and being indoors for extended periods is bad for our physical and mental wellbeing, and exercise is a great way for us to combat stress.
A Mayo Clinic analysis of 13 studies of sitting time and activity levels found that “prolonged periods of sitting lead to obesity, increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, abnormal cholesterol levels… and also seem to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer”¹⁰ Our bodies are not built for sitting for extended periods, but COVID has accelerated another bad habit: being tied to our desks for longer periods of times. Try not to sit for more than 20 minutes at a time:
• Set a timer on your phone to remind you to stand up 20 minutes into
your Zoom call (and adjust your camera).
• Buy a stand-up desk (many employers will pay for them).
• Get out of your chair and walk or stretch between calls.
The unfortunate reality is this most difficult wave of the pandemic is occurring at a time when the days are getting shorter and the weather is getting colder (for most of us anyway). But, getting outside is a key way to avoid remote working burnout. This past spring, I had a client who did not leave his house for 5 straight days, and it was because of his workload rather than the need to shelter in place. In addition to providing a healthy break between Zoom calls, many studies have shown that getting outside contributes to:
• Increased mental energy
• Decreased stress levels
• Improved concentration
• Improved mental health
• Improved life span¹¹
At a time when we need it the most, we are exercising less with gyms, yoga studios, and many of our athletic activities closed down or limited. In his book, “Become a Strong Mental Athlete”, David Silverstein cites many studies that show that exercise is the most effective way to reduce stress.¹² The good news is that COVID has accelerated the trend toward online/remote exercise. There are many options from Peloton and The Mirror to other online fitness and yoga options to DIY home gyms. I have footnoted a recent listing of the “The 9 Best Online Exercise Classes of 2020”.¹³
6. Take a vacation/ staycation/ mental health day.
In 2019, American workers were already forfeiting half of their vacation days.¹⁴ This is yet another negative trend that COVID has accelerated. According to a recent survey by staffing firm Robert Half, more than a third of workers postponed their vacations this year, and more than a quarter planned to take less time.¹⁵ While traveling is challenging, there’s never been a better time to take a staycation and detach from your screen.
Schedule a 3-4 day weekend each month and spend time with your family, read that non-work-related book you’ve wanted to read, set up a home gym (and then use it!). Lead by example and then encourage your colleagues to do the same. A Denver-based software company has been actively encouraging their employees to take more time off during the pandemic. But because few were taking advantage of it, their CEO created “artificial holidays” for the entire company.¹⁶
While the COVID pandemic will come to end, remote working is here to stay for many of us. Remote working burnout represents the culmination of negative trends that existed pre-COVID: overworking, increasing stress/burnout, more time at our desks/on devices; and less time with our families, exercising, and taking care of ourselves. My father always emphasized to me the importance of a work/life balance. More importantly, it was how he lived his life. Since his passing, I am trying to do the same.
Almost all of us need more work/life balance, and by tackling remote working burnout, we can all hopefully look back and say we did not let this crisis go to waste.
David Frost is fassforward’s Head of Executive Coaching and Managing Director. He strives to do good work for good people. He also focuses on business development and operational improvement. David previously spent 20 years on Wall Street. He received his A.B., magna cum laude from Princeton University.
Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic.
Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.