Finweek English Edition
Exhausted and burnt out ... at home
Remote work could lead to more cases of burnout among staff. What can businesses do to help their people?
if someone had told Beth* a few years ago that she would be admitted to a psychiatric clinic for stress and burnout while she was working from home, she would have laughed. It should, of course, be far less stressful to work from home – you do not see your colleagues, there is no boss constantly looking over your shoulder and your hours are your own, right?
Beth is an accountant at a JSE-listed company that rendered essential services during the first series of lockdowns. Most of the company’s employees then started working from home and today some employees work at home while others go to the office.
“Initially, it was convenient and even fun to hold online meetings, but with the passing of time the meetings became noticeably quieter, and people started acting aggressively towards one another. It was evident that the stress caused by the pandemic and the fact that many colleagues lost loved ones during this period began taking its toll. My manager also started phoning me at ungodly hours, even at 22:30 at night,” says Beth.
During this time, the company was also restructured and many of her colleagues lost their jobs.
“Their positions were never filled, and the work was simply divided among the rest of us. One morning I sat in front of my computer and felt so tired that I could not raise my arms. And I wasn’t the only one, as several of my colleagues had already been treated for burnout. There were three women in my ward at the clinic who had been admitted for burnout.”
Although many surveys have shown that people wish to work from home after the pandemic, research has proven that working remotely could lead to burnout among workers. Several factors contribute to this, such as the blurring of home and work and that people are now working longer hours from home, and of course, the pandemic itself and the concomitant lockdowns have also put pressure on people.
The US Bureau for Economic Research has found the average workday increased by 48.5 minutes during lockdown, which equates to two extra workdays a month. Other factors are Zoom exhaustion, feelings of isolation, a lack of creativity at home, and relationship pressure because longer hours cause discord.
A study undertaken by the World Health Organization in 2020 on how to manage work-related psychosocial risks during the pandemic mentions that many workers not only have challenges at work, but that they also had to reorganise their lives at home and care for their, often ill, dependants. All these elements contribute to an imbalance between work and home life, which can affect people’s mental health. Recent research undertaken by Microsoft – the 2021 Work Trend Index – shows that 41% of the labour force is considering leaving their employers at the end of the year. Although most businesses put emphasis on their workers’ mental and physical wellbeing during the Covid-19 crisis, many of the special steps taken and support given have disappeared. In many cases, employees must now negotiate their own way through these health and economic crises, says Jeff Ryan, CEO of AWCape, a business that offers systems integration services.
Dr Elmari Mulder-Craig, a psychotherapist, sexologist and relationship counsellor from Pretoria, mentions that according to studies, two-thirds of employees are currently suffering from burnout.
“Burnout affects productivity and the employee’s emotional, psychological and physical wellbeing. I see in my practice that people are suffering from burnout for far longer periods than they realise. From the time that Covid-19 struck, people have been living with direct and indirect stress and fear. There’s stress about your and your loved ones’ health, job security, finances and also about adapting to remote working conditions. This puts pressure on relationships and the family dynamics.” Dr ST Potgieter, psychologist from Bellville, says that remote work affects different people differently.
Recent research undertaken by Microsoft – the 2021 Work Tren d Index – 4 shows 1 % that of the labour force is considering leaving their employers at the end of the year.
“To a large extent, your personality will determine how you handle this. The introvert will probably be more at ease at home, while the extrovert, who gets his energy through interaction with other people, could handle more stress at home. People who work from home do, however, complain about longer hours, no limitations on their time, a bigger workload and too much communication through emails, calls and meetings. Burnout is a psychological syndrome resulting from exposure to prolonged chronic stressful situations and interpersonal stressful circumstances at work.”
What can businesses do?
According to the Achievers Workforce Institute’s 2021 Engagement and Retention Report, 46% of employees now feel less connected to their employer, while 42% believe that the company structure deteriorated during the crisis.
Burnout and exhaustion of employees are often symptoms of the lack or a poor account of leadership’s capability to put aside the rule books, to wear their creative hats and reevaluate and engage employees in recrafting the new balance between productivity and performance, believes Ntombizone Feni, executive director of the company 21st Century.
She believes that businesses should implement holistic wellness programmes as part of organisational culture to deal with the challenges of working from home.
“Employers who are serious about not only growing their businesses but also making a positive impact in society, should view employees as wholesome human beings who are the drivers and foot soldiers to achieve business success and meaningful social impact. Leaders at work should create an enabling environment to facilitate open, honest and respectful engagement as a culture,” she says.
The biggest challenge as far as burnout is concerned, is not the fact that it is going to make employees unproductive, on the contrary, says Mulder-Craig.
“Employees can overperform and overcompensate, but this could have a long-term effect on their health.”
She says that employers should support their people to put healthy routines in place. They should also have realistic expectations of staff and should also communicate these expectations to them.
Potgieter adds that businesses should make support programmes and counselling available to staff and should also encourage their employees to live a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
Ryan has the following tips for employers:
l Lead by example. While you’re passionate about what you do, show that you value your own mental and physical wellbeing and maintain a work-life balance. Check your own stress levels, make time for family and exercise and take sick leave if it’s necessary.
l Track leave. Many employees might not take leave because they are banking it for a time when they will be able to travel again or they do not take sick leave because, after all, they are already at home doing the work. An automated system can track leave and if not, you can encourage people to take leave.
l Offer flexibility. Recognise the pressures on working parents, the financial stress of the pandemic and the reality of the health crisis. Empathic managers know when to cut a team member some slack. It should be okay to take time off for family responsibilities or to postpone a meeting owing to a personal crisis. Remote workers should rather be measured according to their outcomes than the time spent behind their computers.
l Get feedback from your team. Many businesses have found regular reviews helpful to find out how workers are doing. Get their feedback on team leaders and find out how satisfied they are at work. The “stay” interview is another good idea. Chat with employees about why they stay on at the business, how they are coping and how to create a more engaging working environment.
l Provide resources for mental health such as apps, a recommended psychologist or courses of webinars on stress management.
l Equip managers with the right tools. Many managers struggle to understand and manage mental wellness. Training in this subject can help them to better understand their team’s problems and to spot when someone is struggling.
The signs of burnout
According to Mulder-Craig, burnout has nothing to do with whether you are fulfilled or unhappy in your job. “It involves a variety of symptoms that have an impact on a physical, emotional and intellectual level. This could lead to fear and increasing feelings of depression, panic attacks and even obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Because you feel that you do not have control, you can try to control your environment in this way.”
She adds that it could physically lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, sexual dysfunction, obesity and
“Burnout is a psychological syndrome resulting from exposure to prolonged chronic stressful situations and interpersonal stressful circumstances at work.”