How Working From Home Is Adding To Employee Burnout In A Post-Covid World

Nearly three years of the Covid-19 pandemic have changed the way people live and work. From working in offices to working remotely from home and adapting to hybrid modes of working, both employees and employers have undergone a sea change. The pandemic has also spurred a host of new of workplace maladies, including ìthe great resignation, quiet quitting, over-employment, labour shortages and conflicts between managers and employees over returning to in-person work.

Researchers now feel that the well-being of employees and possible burnout might be the core of most of these issues. Contemporary emotional distress impacts public health and the ongoing challenges that have cropped up due to Covid-19 have made such research even more important. 
Two new studies highlight the importance of social connection in the workplace and illustrate why working from home may not be the optimal workplace arrangement. Hybrid work-from-home schedules may help prevent burnout and improve mental health.

What is burnout and how has it changed with Covid-19?

Burnout is the result of chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, as per the International Classification of Diseases. As a diagnosable condition, burnout consists of three symptoms: physical exhaustion, disengagement with work and colleagues, and cynicism about one’s job and career. With the Covid-19 pandemic, the changing nature of work and interpersonal interactions has also meant brought new symptoms of burnout.

According to Dr Patricia Grabarek, an expert in workplace wellness at USC, three interrelated elements can now be identified as burnout symptoms including emotional or physical exhaustion, a sense of being disconnected from work or family, and a feeling of being less effective.

A report titled The Wellbeing-Engagement Paradox of 2020 by Gallup found changes in patterns of employees engagement and burnout. Typically, higher employee engagement results in less burnout and increased productivity and satisfaction. However, since the Covid-19 pandemic, mental health experts note that higher engagement may not necessarily mean higher productivity and mental well-being in the long run. 

Global research shows that approximately 50 percent of employees and 53 percent of managers are burnt out in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. 

What causes burnout and how can it be stopped?

Despite researchers studying the phenomenon of burnout since the late 1970s, burnout is not yet fully understood. 
Many of the studies conducted since then have focused on workplace conditions, such as pay, hours, management styles and the nebulous workplace culture.

As such, management of burnout has often focused on reshaping work environments and reforming bad managers. While these are of course necessary, it is not immediately clear that they are enough. And yet, with the emergence of remote working models necessitated pandemic, researchers are trying to look at burnout as a social problem that is exacerbated by conditions of isolation.  

For those working from home, the disappearing divide between home and office may cause stress. This makes it necessary to take a holistic view of burnout at the research level.

Work from home: Pros and Cons

According to Kiffer George Card of Simon Fraser University, social connection is a key driver of burnout. In a recent study, researchers from Simon Fraser University tried to identify the most important risk factors for burnout. The study looked at a range of variables, including the classic factors of workload, satisfaction with pay, dignity in the workplace, control over one’s work, and pay adequacy, as well as more novel variables such as home ownership, an array of demographic factors, social support and loneliness.

The researchers found that loneliness and lack of social support were leading contributors to burnout, perhaps just as important if not more so than physical health and financial security. In summary, the study adds to the growing literature around the understanding of burnout as a social problem driven by isolation.

Is work from home leading to burnout?

If isolation is a key contributor of burnout, remote working may be a potential cause for isolation. even after the end of Covid-19 restrictions, many organizations as well as employees have preferred working remotely from home due to the many benefits the model offers. Those privileged enough to be able to work from home have found that it helps save time on their commutes, they have more free time and freedom to get chores done around the house or take a quick nap on their breaks. This means they have more time and energy for friends and family at the end of the day.

And yet, working from home means missing out on social interactions with colleagues, coworkers and the outside world. Losing out on those water cooler conversations and casual collisions with coworkers have been noted to have a surprisingly profound impact on the overall well-being of a person.

Furthermore, considering how important workplaces and schools are for finding and building friendships, a loss of these spaces could have serious long-term consequences for people’s social health, especially if the time spent with others at work is now spent at home alone.

Can Hybrid work models help?

To understand the impacts of working from home on mental health, the team of researchers at Simon Fraser University conducted a second study to look at differences in self-rated mental health across individuals who work only from home, only in person, or who worked partially in person and partially at home.

The study revealed that 54 per cent of those who worked only in person and 63 per cent of those who worked only at home reported good or excellent mental health.

These results might indicate that working from home is the most ideal working model for mental health. However,  the findings are contrary to a growing number of studies that highlight the disadvantages and challenges of working from home.

Nevertheless, a whopping 87 per cent of the respondents of the second study who functioned on hybrid work arrangement (working partially in-person and partially at home) reported good or excellent mental health.

Indeed, hybrid work arrangements may allow employees to maintain those positive connections with colleagues while also providing a better balance between work and life. 

It really may be the best of both worlds, at least for those who can work this way.

(With inputs from The Conversation/AP/PTI)