Remote work has been on a slow and steady rise in recent years, but the recent pandemic pushed the movement to the forefront of workplace conversations and forced the hand of previously resistant CEOs everywhere. The question has now shifted from is remote work doable to how to make it sustainable. Employees appreciate the freedom and flexibility of working from home (plus skipping the daily commute), while employers have discovered cost-saving benefits and productivity gains. While the benefits of remote work are clear for both, the unexpected repercussions—including loneliness and burnout—can not be ignored as companies create long-term remote work plans.
For many remote workers, however, the freedom comes with an unexpected downside. As many as 21% of remote workers list loneliness as their biggest struggle with working from home. Because many employees get most of their daily social interaction at the office, isolation and loneliness may be conditions that managers haven’t had to address in the past.
In addition to loneliness, many telecommuters experience burnout from the longer, irregular hours that often come into play. While burnout is common in the office as well, the clear separation between work and home usually creates a buffer for most employees to turn work off. But when your work is your home, that line between that between the two blurs as “working from home” starts to feel like “living at work.”
Here are five crucial measures HR professionals and management can take to minimize remote work isolation and burnout:
Develop and train managers
Understanding and identifying loneliness and burnout cues are crucial first steps. Managers are the first line of defense in recognizing these warning signs. When a problem with an individual employee is identified, managers and team leaders have the best chance to provide a helpful response—but they must be trained and equipped to do it. A lack of understanding and sympathy will only make things worse. Encourage conversation, share resources, and always honor confidentiality.
Managers should strive to develop quality connections with their team members. Frequent one-on-one meetings and scheduled video chats give managers more opportunities to sense changes in mood and symptoms of burnout. Small gestures, like wellness check-ins, personalized conversation, and giving praise can go a long way. Organizationally, perks like social events and fitness benefits are growing in popularity.
Raise awareness about the risks
You may not need to develop an elaborate reporting system, but all employees should generally be made aware of the psychological risks that come with remote work, including loneliness and burnout. If you’ve kept a hybrid office where much of the staff still works on-site, they should be aware that response times and work hours may vary with those employees working from home. When social gatherings and milestone celebrations are organized, there should be an effort to include telecommuters in some way. When on-site staff never see the telecommuters face-to-face, communication can become unnecessarily impersonal and even abrasive.
Many employees recently shifted to remote work for the first time in their lives, and the seemingly endless vacation gradually transitioned into cabin fever. Provide specific tips for employees who may be new to remote work, like mentally “clocking out” for set daily hours, rather than continuously brainstorming the next work problem. Telecommuters may also be tempted to work from bed without getting fully dressed, which can make it hard to mentally separate work from relaxation.
Promote social connections
Between the members of remote teams (and also between individual remote workers and in-office staff), it is important to create opportunities for the kinds of social connections that would naturally occur around the water cooler. Depending on the age groups and interests of your workforce, virtual happy hours, online gaming, and social media may be surprisingly effective. If your remote workers all live nearby, your teams could decide to meet for trivia nights and other gatherings. In-person interaction helps minimize the dissociation that comes with interacting exclusively online.
Build professional rapport with collaboration
Teamwork is an integral part of nearly every business, but collaboration may need to be more deliberate with remote teams. One of the biggest attractions of working from home is the feeling of independence, and remote employees may be tempted to see themselves almost as contractors. For the sake of team cohesion and efficiency, teams can be subdivided in different ways for different projects. Without seeing each other in the office breakroom, collaborative work allows workers to appreciate the unique skills and capabilities of each colleague.
Many of your employees may not fully understand their own response to the lifestyle changes that come with working from home. When you raise awareness throughout the company, make sure to have additional resources and reading materials available. HR professionals must always be on hand to talk with employees in need about remote work loneliness and burnout, whether in-person or online. Remote workers should also feel free to communicate with team leaders about personal problems affecting productivity, but they need alternative contacts outside of your company hierarchy. For extreme cases like suicidal ideation, you’ll want to make sure helplines are available. You may even consider adding therapeutic telemedicine services when you adjust the benefits package for remote workers.
Avoid setting drastic expectations
Remote work offers tremendous benefits for everyone involved, but the risks must also be taken seriously. If productivity increases when workers first shift to working from home, then managers must be careful about moving the goalposts for productivity. If the higher output becomes the expected norm during the review process for remote employees, then you may encounter burnout and quality problems after a few weeks at the elevated pace. Some processes will genuinely be more efficient without office distractions, and others will only seem faster because the employees are actually working longer hours from home.
As always, looking out for the mental health of employees is imperative and goes beyond productivity and liability concerns. When there’s a genuine concern about the well-being of each employee, that’s an investment in the long term success and effectiveness of the entire workforce. As the workforce continues to evolve, it is essential that employers do not let things such as remote work loneliness and burnout, go unnoticed and untreated.