How to spot the signs of burnout in a remote workforce

Working from home has undoubtedly blurred the lines between work and life, with many of us finding we now work and relax in the same space. But if it seems your staff rarely log off to take breaks throughout the day, it could be a sign they’re overworking – or feeling pressured to do so, writes Stuart Taylor, CEO & Co-Founder, Springfox

More than six months into remote working and the initial novelty has well and truly been replaced by collective fatigue. Isolation from colleagues, feeling like we’re ‘always on’, and the stresses of home-schooling have combined to create extremely challenging conditions for workers, both physically and mentally.

In fact, according to Springfox’s latest study, The Australian Workforce Response to COVID-19, the biggest cause of heightened stress for 55 per cent of respondents was changes to ways of working – which includes having to adapt to new technologies and dealing with blurred boundaries between work and home. As a result, many workers are now finding themselves on the brink of burning out.

It can be near impossible to spot the signs of burnout in a virtual workforce, especially when leaders are unsure of what to look out for. Despite this, in order for organisations to survive and thrive through the pandemic and beyond, employee wellbeing should be a priority for leaders everywhere. If you’re wondering how to identify the signs of burnout in a remote workforce, consider these indicators.

As we move into 2021, it’s highly likely we’ll see a delayed effect of burnout and mental illness sweep across our workforce, as we grapple with the transition into a post-COVID world.

They’re online for long hours
Extended or unusual work hours can be one of the most telling signs of someone experiencing burnout. If you notice your staff logging on very early in the morning or remaining online until late into the evening, it could be a sign that they’re feeling overwhelmed or struggling with their workload.

Some organisations allow staff the flexibility to start earlier or work later depending on their preference, but it’s important to ensure staff are choosing these hours rather than feeling they have no choice. Encourage staff not to stay online any longer than necessary and consider re-evaluating priorities so your team understand which tasks can be left for the next day. Leaders should also lead by example and log off at a reasonable time, and avoid sending emails after 6pm.

They appear fatigued during video calls
Video calls can offer very important insight into how your staff are coping. If an employee frequently appears noticeably fatigued or worn out, it might be a sign that they’re under excessive stress. You should also take notice of body language and facial expressions, such as slumping or resting their head in their hands, or appearing frustrated or sad, as these can also point to burnout.

Leaders should endeavour to check in with staff frequently, especially those who appear to be struggling. If the underlying cause of their exhaustion is work-related, leaders should consider ways to support the employee to alleviate undue stress – this could include temporarily reducing their workload, connecting them to the organisation’s EAP program, or encouraging a mental health day to rest and recover.

They don’t log off to take breaks
Working from home has undoubtedly blurred the lines between work and life, with many of us finding we now work and relax in the same space. But if it seems your staff rarely log off to take breaks throughout the day, it could be a sign they’re overworking – or feeling pressured to do so.

Remote working has, in many cases, rid us of our usual daily routines – which means having a coffee in the break room or ducking out for lunch with a colleague is now no longer on the cards. Nevertheless, remind staff of their break entitlements and encourage them to use them fully, especially while working from home. It’s also important for leaders to lead by example and ensure they’re taking regular breaks themselves, so that staff feel comfortable to do the same.

Encourage staff not to stay online any longer than necessary and consider re-evaluating priorities so your team understand which tasks can be left for the next day.

Their productivity is declining
High levels of stress and mental fatigue have a direct negative impact on productivity. Staff who are experiencing these symptoms are likely to feel disengaged and have trouble concentrating on their work, meaning they’re more likely to drop the ball or make uncharacteristic errors.

Leaders should demonstrate compassion and empathy when broaching the subject of performance with staff by acknowledging the impact of the shift to remote working, and discussing ways the employee may feel more supported to do their best work.

These are some of the more common indicators of burnout, however it’s important for leaders to remain attentive to their team’s wellbeing to ensure other signs are not missed. While burnout in the remote workforce is, in many ways, a result of the unique circumstances facing organisations and their people this year, leaders should be very mindful that this won’t simply end in 2020. Rather, as we move into 2021, it’s highly likely we’ll see a delayed effect of burnout and mental illness sweep across our workforce, as we grapple with the transition into a post-COVID world.

Leaders should endeavour to check in with staff frequently, especially those who appear to be struggling. If the underlying cause of their exhaustion is work-related, leaders should consider ways to support the employee to alleviate undue stress.

Just because your team is working remotely, doesn’t mean you should discount professional learning and development programs either. Our research has shown formal resilience training programs deliver a 30 per cent reduction, on average, in anxiety and depression symptoms, and there are many ways these programs can be delivered to remote working teams.

After all, there’s never been a more important time to build the strength and resilience of your greatest asset – your staff.

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