Guide to burnout symptoms and recovery strategies for remote teams

“I work for an F50 Corp in finance and have been working remotely since March of last year. I’ve rotated twice in that time and I’m in a role where I’ve never met any of my colleagues in person.

I feel like the lack of work/home separation, lack of structure, lack of interaction with coworkers, and sitting at home alone staring at a computer is taking a significant toll on my mental health and impacting my work.”

This is a testimony shared on r/careerguidance. There are more similar stories shared on social media or off-the-record. The details are different but the bigger picture remains: at some point, people start feeling like work has penetrated their lives and there’s no safe haven, not even at home.

Over the last 20 years, the share of people growing tired of what they do for a living became so pronounced, that large-scale talks about burnout started. According to Deloitte, 77% of employees have experienced burnout at least once — from juniors to C-level executives and CEOs.

Ever since the start of the pandemic, there’s been a trend of shifting the burnout blame on remote work. In this post, we’ll take a look at whether the two are linked and share tips remote (and not only) teams can use to avoid burnout.

The portrait of burnout


The standard definition of burnout states:

“Burnout is a psychological syndrome characterized by emotional exhaustion, feelings of cynicism, and reduced personal accomplishment.”

Although the expressions of burnout are similar to those of depression, we tend to separate the two as the latter has a strong link to the workplace.

At the moment, there’s no common denominator for the causes of burnout symptoms but, one of the broadest ways to look at it is energy mismanagement. Since energy is a broad term, we can consider three types of energy employees tend to struggle to manage:

  • Intellectual (IQ) energy is associated with completing tasks requiring complex problem-solving.
  • Emotional (EQ) energy links to the environment: talking to people (clients or colleagues), creating emotionally charged content (articles, sales pitches), etc.
  • Physical (PQ) energy shows itself in the need to move between offices, visit clients in person, have to perform physical activities, or the inability to do so.

The mismanagement of each of the three leads to burnout.

Burnout symptoms

Unfortunately, as far as science is concerned, we don’t have a list of physiological burnout signs. By far, the highest precision of burnout measurement was achieved by tracking heart rate variability (HRV).

This procedure helps determine the disbalance between the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous systems.

Since team leaders don’t have the opportunity to track physiological burnout markers, most rely on obvious burn-out red flags: loss of attention to detail, impatience, resentment at work, unwillingness to interact with co-workers, and others.

The problem is that, by the time visible signs of burnout show up, the damage is usually long underway.

There’s a Buzzfeed post where people share their early burnout signs: for someone, it’s the loss of sense of humor, for others — sleep disturbances, and, most commonly, not wanting to get up in the morning. These are mental and often not obvious at work.

By the time the team leader sees something is amiss, it is usually too late for the burned-out employee.

Aftermath of burnout symptoms

As is the case with most conditions and pathologies, we’ve learned how damaging burnout can be the hard way — by experiencing its effects on ourselves and our teams. While burnout isn’t equally devastating for everyone, it can get as bad as:

  • Prior health conditions resurface or new ones emerge, induced by workplace stress.
  • The job the individual was doing loses its meaning up to the point of giving up on the career path altogether and having to get a new set of skills.
  • Deterioration of family bonds — absenteeism in parents, lack of connection between partners, no desire to maintain friendships.
  • Poorer quality of life in general.

For the job market, burnout is a thief stealing key knowledge holders and the most skilled people on the team. It is the key factor behind high employee turnover and low workplace productivity.

Over the last ten years, as more managers experience the effects of burnout symptoms in their teams, the need for ways to prevent it has become apparent.

Burnout symptoms and remote work

The COVID pandemic gave birth to a common notion — remote work induces burnout. A lot of people shared their workplace stress and resentment stories on Reddit, Twitter, LinkedIn, and blogs, complaining that working remotely destroyed their freedom to unplug at home. The truth is not as clear-cut.

On the one hand, studies confirm that perceived stress levels increased due to the pandemic, and the key reasons are:

  • Inability to communicate with the team/colleagues effectively (for 21% of respondents)
  • Struggle with managing collaboration and communication tools (for 19% of surveyed employees)
  • Avoiding distractions (for 18% of respondents)
  • Balancing the workload with family responsibilities (15% of survey participants).

On the other hand, it’s true that other reasons contributing to higher stress and burnout levels weren’t specific to remote work. As the key drivers of burnout symptoms, a lot of people credit:

  • The stress of the pandemic (not wanting to contract COVID, being scared for families, friends, and loved ones)
  • Toxic political climate
  • Attitude challenges at work (being talked down to by clients and managers)
  • Feeling exploited by the employee
  • Meaningless of the job they are doing

Thus, rather than the work-from-home arrangement itself, the way managers adapt to the new environment is to blame for burnout symptoms.

Putting too much emphasis on presence-based work, pressuring teams to work long hours, not communicating transparently, and giving teammates few socialization opportunities are some of the reasons why we stopped feeling fulfilled at work.

On top of that, the pandemic required team leaders to walk the extra mile in employee well-being but few were up to the challenge.

Ways to prevent burnout for remote teams

Since detecting burn-out early on is next to impossible, team leaders should aim at preventing it and look after their employees’ mental health. To that end, executives should explore a range of changes in workflow organization, office management, communication, and performance tracking.

Communication tips for preventing burnout

Setting clear boundaries

The increasing shift to remote work, coupled with the tendency to hire global teams, leads to teams not having a uniform work schedule. In geographically dispersed teams, someone is always working and messaging colleagues.

As a result, employees are bombarded with data and don’t have enough time to de-stress and unplug.

The physical barrier between home and the office is also no longer there for remote teams, making it likelier for employees to start and finish their days answering emails and putting out fires.

To avoid this, managers should encourage employees to define clear-cut schedules and let the rest of the team know about them via calendar and communication tools.

Not encouraging working long hours

While there’s no reason to reprimand employees for going the extra mile and working on work projects in their spare time, managers shouldn’t praise eagerness either. Once they do, a sense of competitiveness and peer pressure will settle in, making employees feel like there’s no room for a break or a sick day.

Instead of evangelizing the hustle culture, team leaders should encourage employees to spend their free time with families, exploring their passions, or unwinding after a stressful day at work.

Creating Slack chats that give people room to “boast” their passions is one of the ways to emphasize the human aspect of the team and encourage employees to develop a “rest ethic”.

Building a documentation system

One of the reasons teammates choose to not take sick leaves and days off is that, if they do, it will create bottlenecks and slow the project down. In teams where key knowledge is held by specific individuals, the risk of burn-out is higher and the induced damage is detrimental to the progress of any project teams are working on.

To help teammates embrace self-care, managers should make sure no one on the team is irreplaceable.

Encouraging employees to document practices and lessons learned will improve knowledge transfer within the team and create an environment where, if a key player is unavailable, someone is always ready to step in. Giving the team room to try on different roles is another way to increase interchangeability.

Introducing a “no communication outside of work hours” policy

To give team members a clear distinction between work and personal life, team leaders should encourage people to not message each other after work.

By eliminating all after-work communication, managers keep teammates from having to stay alert to messages and notifications.

Organizational changes for preventing burn-out

Planning with extra space for maneuver

Tight deadlines and high workloads hugely contribute to burnout and stem from leaders’ inability to estimate the complexity of each task, as well as the mental strain it puts on the team.

  • Following the likeliest plan instead of the best one.
  • Prioritizing quality over speed.
  • Conducting stress assessments at each step of the project to measure how burdened teammates felt when meeting deadlines.
  • Running a robust risk assessment before working out a plan
  • Keeping changes and emergencies in mind.

Exploring non-traditional working styles

Burn-out can rarely be solved with one-time solutions like a vacation or a day off. Rather, it is a symptom of systematic issues the organization is facing. Thus, to prevent burn-out, radical change is often necessary, such as exploring non-standard approaches to working:

  • The four-hour workweek has been proven to be productive
  • Cutting the number of working hours in a day can help teams have extra time to themselves
  • Restructuring the workday can help deter burn-out: for example, managers can review the number of meetings and cut them down to save the team’s emotional energy.
  • The practice of regularly taking time off work to focus on mental health can help employees align their well-being and work.

Leveraging asynchronous communication tools

The prevalence of synchronous communication (chats and meetings) creates a sense of urgency and pressure among teams, as people feel like they have to instantly respond to notifications and be available 24/7.

Managers can dilute the damage dealt by this mindset by balancing synchronous and asynchronous communication. Sharing not urgent messages, tasks, and announcements via e-mail will give the team more time to respond thoughtfully and eliminate the pressure of here-and-now reactions.

Using tools that promote work-life balance

Since remote work is highly technology-driven, team managers can use tools to foster work-life balance.

For example, virtual office tools like oVice help draw a line between working hours and after-work time encouraging employees to work only when they are logged into the company’s virtual space.

People-facing changes for preventing burn-out

Hiring a mental health professional to focus on the team’s well-being

While mental health is becoming a widespread issue across many organizations, few leaders take actionable steps to address the challenge. Hiring therapists and career advisors who will counsel employees on burnout-related issues, uncertainties, and concerns, will help create a safe space at work.

Otherwise, teammates might have to confide about the difficulties they are facing with each other and feel ashamed of oversharing afterward.

Knowing when it’s time to hire

Short-staffed organizations are highly prone to burn-out, as teammates have abnormally high workloads and no freedom to take time off.

Assessing the need for new hires and proactively looking for talent to take extra pressure off teams will help executives prevent burnout and create a healthy, balanced work environment.

In many ways, burnout is a predictable byproduct of productivity- and availability-driven management. Since there are no telltale signs that help detect early-stage burnout, leaders should focus on prevention instead.

Staying ahead of burnout symptoms requires a cascade of changes and tweaks — but, once implemented, they boost employee retention and productivity in the long run.

Encouraging teammates to connect on a human level is one of the ways to deter burnout symptoms and increase workplace fulfillment. While it’s harder to create an environment that enables spontaneous interactions when everyone works from home, a growing number of leaders use virtual office solutions to introduce the benefits of office work to remote teams.

oVice is a leading virtual office platform, used by over 20,000 companies worldwide. Find out how we help remote and hybrid teams stay connected and engaged.

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