As the pandemic stretches on, remote work burnout is becoming an increasing reality. Over two-thirds of US respondents surveyed by Monster.com in July, reported that they were experiencing burnout symptoms while working from home. The reality is that many workers are logging in more hours when working remote. Recent research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research calculates that the pandemic workday is 48.5 minutes longer for telecommuters in the US, Europe and Middle East. Looking at email and meeting metadata, the researchers also concluded that the number of meetings have increased by 13% and that people sent 1.4 more emails per day to their colleagues.
Even before COVID-19, the amount of workplace messages sent through email and online collaboration software was increasing. While digitalization brings significant advantages for organizations, it has amplified workplace stress for individuals by enabling 24/7 accessibility, blurring work-life boundaries and creating an “instant response” culture with the expectation that messages received demand an immediate acknowledgement or response. As a result, workplace stress is costing US and European businesses around $300 billion per year, and has helped to generate a corporate wellness industry worth $57.2 billion.
Rethinking Corporate Well-being Initiatives
Corporate well-being programs have progressed from providing health insurance and employee assistance to include offerings for personal productivity and health improvement. Typical offerings include access to fitness centers, bringing yoga, exercise and massage services to the office, stress reduction programs, and wellbeing challenges to improve nutrition, mindfulness, and fitness levels.
But the switch to remote working has highlighted two shortcomings.
First, many wellbeing programs have been designed as in-office amenities. Consider the example of Silicon Valley giants such as Google and Apple, who built their workplace cultures around catered nutritious meals, on-site fitness facilities, on-site groceries and dry-cleaning services. Many of these offerings were designed with a particular employee in mind-those who could stay in the office until late. Now the pandemic is forcing many companies to rethink their benefits strategy.
Second, most programs are ad hoc and casual. It’s up to the employee to take advantage of them as little or as much as they would like. And with remote working now the norm, it’s rare to find time for any corporate well-being initiative within the daily ritual of Zoom calls. “The trouble is that people can’t escape from their work to take advantage of these programs. Many of our workplace practices make it hard to be well,” explains Amy Bonsall, the founder and CEO of nau, a provider of human-centered mindfulness and behavior change programs. “We need to bring wellness from the edges of the workplace and consciously integrate it into our workplace practices.”
It’s About Trust
At the heart of the issue is the level of trust within an organization’s culture. The level of trust in an organization has a strong link with effective co-operation and collaboration, with morale, with flexibility, with knowledge transfer and learning. If people aren’t trusted to work their own way, they are likely to fall victim to “presenteeism.” The expectation from managers is that they can see their people and know they are working. With remote work, how can managers know that their employees are actually working?
Unfortunately, increasing reports of corporate surveillance on employees indicates that many organizations are resorting to, and even increasing, traditional control and tracking efforts usually done in the office. The difference is that its done through digital tools and at an employee’s home. As Silkie Carlo, of anti-surveillance charity Big Brother Watch, recounts to the Guardian newspaper, “It’s important for people’s sense of autonomy and dignity, and their mental health, that the home remains a private space and we don’t go down the route of this really invasive constant monitoring of people’s homes.”
Remote Corporate Well-being
It’s imperative to reframe corporate wellbeing programs to better cater to the needs of a distributed and remote workforce. Here are four ways leaders can start their journey.
1. Rethink Work Assumptions: Many reward systems have been designed based on the time taken to do a job. Instead, leaders should recognize that work is performed for a purpose. Goals should be agreed upon and results should be measured against them. How and when people get their work done, is up to the individual.
2. Identify What Employees Value: A 2018 Deloitte study on employee well-being programs revealed significant gaps between what employees value and what companies offer. At the time of the study, significant gaps were observed in telecommuting and flexible work schedules! Organizations need to understand what other types of support employees value in the age of remote working.
3. Model Healthy Behaviors: If your organization values workforce well-being, it has to be role-modeled by leaders. One factor that sets more serene company cultures apart from the chaotic and burnout-prone workplace is a difference in leadership styles. Simply put, effective leaders need to walk the talk and lead by example. Managers can show their support of employee mental health by showing that they prioritize self care and are setting boundaries themselves. Some leaders announce that they are taking a walk during the middle of the day and informing colleagues when they are unavailable.
4. Start at Team Level: While many companies are guided by policies and procedures, corporate well-being materializes through new rituals, norms and behaviors that are reinforced collectively by working teams. Amy Bonsall recommends teams to start by understanding the particular challenges faced by each individual team member. Then, as a team, work together to co-create well-being practices that are supported and respected by all. It could be as simple as agreeing to a designated hour during the week that is reserved for personal well-being. All team members agree to respect that time, and not send work emails or expect responses from their teammates, for example.
Many organizations were historically designed for labor productivity. But now many people are seeking purpose. It’s time to redesign our organizations to support purpose and well-being that is fit for these times.
First published on Forbes.com on October 8th 2020.