BURNOUT AND REMOTE WORKING

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.

 
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