Burnout Recovery: The Potential Upside of Coronavirus Remote Work?

Reflection writing

The coronavirus pandemic is a global threat to health, safety, and economic stability.  In response, many countries have imposed “stay at home” mandates to enforce social distancing.  Routines have often been smashed as eligible employees struggle with their new remote work arrangements.

Those who are new to a remote work arrangement are often faced with a long day of unstructured hours.  What to do first?  Should I even get dressed if I’m working from home?  Where do I find a quiet place to work that is free from interruptions?  Who can I talk to when none of my coworkers is readily available?

These workers will often experience greater stress as they try to rapidly adjust to this new “normal” – a change that may not have been wanted.  

For those of us who always or at least sometimes work from home, we’re somewhat unfazed by the mandate to stay at home.  We’ve learned how to create routines, self-manage our work days, and balance competing professional and personal responsibilities.  While there are definitely changes in how often we can leave our homes, there has been little impact on our work lives — even though our overall lives may feel uprooted.  

For many workers, remote work has left them feeling socially isolated. 

To combat these feelings of social isolation, employees are relying on video conferencing to stay connected.  Telephone calls might also be replacing texting as a way to communicate:  according to Mehrabian, 38% of a message is transferred via the tone of voice — which isn’t available in a text.  Technology enables us to keep in touch — if only virtually rather than physically.  There is a big difference between being “alone” and feeling “lonely.”  

It’s important to remember that moving to a remote work arrangement constitutes a significant change that impacts what we do, how we do it, and where we do it — and change is initially stressful as we transition from “what was” to “what is.”

But what was it really like for us in the workplace?  Will some of these workplace stressors be alleviated from working remotely?  Will others continue to stress us out even in our new virtual environment?  Is the need to develop a new way to work a source of negative stress — or can it be the catalyst for positive growth?

I believe that there might be a light at the end of this imposed physical removal from the workplace:  the start of the journey toward burnout recovery.

The First Step to Burnout Recovery 

As horrible and frightening as the coronavirus is, the ability for workers to stay at home might provide them with the ideal arrangement to begin recovering from burnout.  Let me explain.  

According to a recent Gallup poll, 67% of full-time workers have experienced job burnout.  A Kronos survey found that up to 50% of employees have quit their jobs because of burnout.

So it follows that many newly remote workers who have been forced to “stay at home” have experienced job burnout.  The question is whether their new remote work arrangement will exacerbate these feelings of high stress or whether working from home will provide them with an opportunity to recover from burnout.

According to my Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B-DOC), the first stage of successfully recovering from burnout is to psychologically or physically remove yourself from the stressor.  Psychological removal results in presenteeism — or being physically on the job…but mentally somewhere else.  In other words, you’re there but detached and disengaged. 

But when it comes to physical removal from the stressor, this has traditionally been accomplished through voluntary (“I quit!”) or involuntary (“You’re fired or downsized”) termination.  In other words, you’re no longer reporting to work.

The coronavirus pandemic and need for social distancing in order to stop the spread of the virus has forced many companies to allow their employees to work remotely from home — perhaps for the first time.  In other words, employees have now physically removed themselves from the workplace while still retaining their employment status.

Working remotely is a physical removal from workplace stressors and is aligned with the first step of burnout recovery.  

The Second Step to Burnout Recovery 

The psychological or physical separation from workplace stressors is only the first step toward recovering from burnout — but simply leaving the workplace is insufficient to fully recover.  

The next step on the recovery journey is critical:  a time for self-reflection.

What was your standard work day like before you began to work remotely?  For many workers, their day was a never-ending race to get here and do that.  Their days were tightly (and often unrealistically) scheduled:  a 10-minute delay could lead to a cascade of missed appointments and deadlines. 

One very common delay is associated with the daily commute.  According to a recent CNBC report, the average round trip commute in the U.S. is approximately 45 minutes — a record high according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  Some states (such as New York, California, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C.) can have daily commutes as long as 90 minutes — adding nearly an additional 8-hour work day to their weekly schedule.  

As of 2018, 10% of U.S. workers commute 90 minutes or more to work.  In addition to creating work-life balance problems, the decreased amount of time for physical activity can lead to obesity and high blood pressure.

With the move to working remotely, employees are suddenly freeing up anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes per day because they are no longer commuting to work.  

By eliminating the daily commute, workers have been given some ideal time to begin considering the causes of their workplace stress as well as proactive ways to overcome it and move forward.

Here are four questions to consider as you proactively use this extra time to begin your journey to recover from burnout:

  1. What do you believe is the most stressful aspect of your workplace?  Is this still stressful as you work from home?  Consider these 10 workplace stressors that have been linked to job burnout.
  2. Since physical distance from the stressor often provides greater clarity into it, what have been your assumptions as to the reason why this workplace situation has been so stressful for you?  Remember:  Stressors are external and neutral — how you react is based on your assumptions about that stressor.  (Be brave in answering this one — getting to the underlying root assumptions can be challenging because our egos tend to thwart our efforts to see them!)
  3. Now that you have identified the assumptions that have caused you to stress out over this workplace situation, how can you reframe your perspective?  In other words, how can you change your paradigm and see this from a new, less stressful perspective?
  4. Here’s the litmus test:  how much control do you have over this workplace stressor?  The only thing that we can ultimately control is our reaction – and you are ultimately responsible for effectively managing your career.

As you embark on this period of self-discovery (perhaps during the time when you would normally be commuting to work), you will be faced with a decision:  have I found a new way to deal with the stressors of my current job OR should I consider updating my resume, contacting my network, and find a new opportunity?

I believe that many people will begin questioning their current work situations and the high levels of job stress they may have been experiencing as they begin working from home, decreasing their commutes, and (finally) have the time for reflecting on their careers.

Good luck, stay safe, and be healthy!

© 2020 G. A. Puleo 

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