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Burnout and remote working

04 May 16:00 by Michael Drayton

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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.

Continue reading this article on The Psychologist Website.