This article should not be taken as medical advice. What this article offers is a starting point for a bigger conversation with your team about employee burnout.
Why remote workers are vulnerable to burnout
Burnout is an invisible force—one that many business leaders don’t consider a factor when their plans fall short. Instead, they focus on their employees' work ethic and dedication, or the perceived lack thereof. This disconnect between workers and employers is known as productivity paranoia , and it can lead to a work culture of mistrust and employee burnout.
The daily grind for distributed employees becomes more isolating and stressful when we consider frustrating work-related factors like unclear communication and time constraints. It’s not surprising that 69% of employees have experienced burnout while working remotely.
Burnout doesn’t announce itself. But there are indicators that leaders can look for to identify employees who are in the throes of burnout.
Not all indicators are predictive, though. There are both lagging and leading indicators.
Consider a car that runs out of fuel on the road. A lagging indicator would be the car stalling on the highway, while a leading one would be the fuel gauge on your dash flashing “empty.”
Lagging indicators require hindsight, whereas leading indicators require foresight. While employers certainly have opinions about productivity, it’s hard to argue with a clear fact such as looking at workers’ dashboards and seeing their gas tanks running low.
And that is exactly what we need. We must identify the leading indicators of burnout rather than just the lagging indicators.
With that said, here’s how to identify each indicator on a distributed team.
Lagging indicators of burnout
Missed deadlines: There are often cues leading up to the moment when a worker fails to deliver on time. However, remote workers may not express concern that they’ll miss a deadline until it’s too late. And if there is a lack of organizational trust and transparency, they’ll fear disciplinary actions or worry that their work will be reassigned by an unsympathetic manager. If it takes a missed deadline to identify employee burnout, then it’s too late for both the assignment and the worker.
More sick days: Burnout is more than feeling tired. Workers may lose their sense of purpose, develop bad habits, and experience mental and physical conditions that can hurt their long-term health. Healing from burnout may require more time than paid sick days allow for. In that case, employees will return to work before they’ve fully recovered, which puts them at risk of burnout again.
A drop in work quality: You’re probably familiar with the term “quiet quitting,” where disengaged employees opt out of going above and beyond and instead choose to lower the bar. In doing so, they are regaining some control over their lives. But when your top performers decline responsibilities or deliver work below their usual standards, opportunities to lead, support, and communicate are missed. And it will become much harder to inspire them again down the road.
Turnover: When the symptoms of burnout go unrecognized for too long and workplace conditions fail to improve, fed-up talent will leave. And when your people exit, there isn’t much you can do to help them—they’ve already saved themselves, and good for them.
Even if your organization identifies lagging symptoms of burnout, it might be too late to take action. That’s why we must keep an eye on leading indicators. Only then can we truly start the conversation and work with our employees to develop a healthier approach to work.
Leading indicators of burnout
Context switching: When your team is constantly switching between different apps, tasks, and projects, they’re unlikely to get into a flow of doing their best work. Furthermore, being distracted can lead to increased time pressure and a vicious cycle of burnout.
Context switching may be caused by unclear priorities, which leads to time and energy wasted. So, if a worker is toggling back and forth between different tasks, check in on them.
Collaboration overload: Your team needs to work together, but how they communicate through Slack, Teams, and Zoom may be increasing their workload. Long meetings and the pressure to quickly respond to messages causes employees to always be on alert, thus making them distracted. Regularly pulling team members away from their work can be a leading cause of burnout.
Overtime or missed breaks: Perhaps the most common reason for burnout is that workers are putting in longer hours. And perhaps they’re working so hard that they’re compromising other areas of their lives, such as hobbies, friends, family, and health.
Because the office is always available for remote workers, logging in for another hour in the evening or on the weekend is tempting. This can lead to employees both waking up and falling asleep worrying about work.
The old paradigm is that the workers who hustle will get promotions. But those workers are also more likely to get burnt out in the process. If you care about their long-term well-being, you must help them look after their health. Employees are the engine of your organization, and working overtime or missing breaks should not become the norm.
Keeping an eye on leading indicators of burnout is not easy, as they often blend in with the work itself. Additionally, over the course of a busy day, it’s not realistic for leaders to request constant updates without becoming a distraction themselves.
Produce8 is a digital work analytics platform that automatically brings activities and tools your team interacts with into a timeline, offering the whole team visibility into their work patterns. Employers can now better identify leading burnout indicators.
Talking about burnout
Don’t make assumptions. You will only come across as insincere if you tell employees that you have the end-all, be-all answer to their burnout. And you will only create more stress and resentment if you discuss burnout without first establishing trust.
When talking about burnout, be open-minded. More than anything, listen. Hear what your employees are saying about the work. Have a genuine discussion where you ask what they need. You’re not their therapist, so no need to get personal, but there are work-related details you need to know:
- Are there too many projects?
- Do they want more feedback?
- Do they need more resources?
- Are their efforts not yielding results?
- Do they want to be acknowledged for the work they’ve done?
Don’t take criticism personally, and reserve judgment. No finger-pointing. After all, you are here to help the worker recalibrate and recover.
Take action to predict and prevent burnout
Conversations about employee burnout might be tough to hear, but there’s more. It’s time to move to the next step. (Yes, there’s a next step.) Don’t just talk the talk—walk the walk. When you tell your employees that you care, but then leadership doesn’t make any changes, the whole exercise will only look like a box checked off for HR.
Preventing burnout will be a work in progress. Always be learning, implementing changes, and measuring impact to establish a healthier and more productive work environment.
5 tips to prevent burnout
Burnout is the result of many hidden factors, meaning there are no quick solutions. You’ll need to adjust the approach depending on the worker, their working conditions, the job itself, and the people they work with.
Involve the workers in the conversation. After all, they’re the ones struggling. You are there to equip them with what they need to succeed, not enforce a new workflow or policy.
1. Take time and set boundaries: Burnout isn’t something you just sleep off. It can take weeks or even months to recover. That’s why this step is so important. Encourage the burnt-out worker to take time and prioritize self-care. The sooner you start this process, the better.
To reduce the risk of a worker falling back into unhealthy work patterns, they must set boundaries. One way to do that is to treat breaks and off time the same way they would treat meetings with important clients. Once time is booked, they respect it. So, treat your team’s self-care with the utmost respect.
2. Identify stressors: Some events trigger stress more than others. For remote workers, this could mean an unscheduled video call, an application not working, or getting a notification from the boss at 4:45 pm. Alone, each of these stressors is a mere annoyance. But when they add up, a worker can become blind to what’s a reasonable request and what isn’t.
You don’t need to solve all the stressors immediately, nor can you. But you can analyze your current workflow. Are there a lot of unscheduled video calls? Are tools unreliable? Do last-minute requests happen often?
There will never be a completely stress-free workplace. But by identifying stressors, you can ensure workers are less overwhelmed.
3. Reassess priorities: Burnout can be the result of highly motivated workers taking on too many assignments. When they become overworked, their motivation declines.
For these workers, taking away their work may be perceived as punishment. When you delegate their assignment to others, it may add more stress—and sometimes even more work—because now they need to support other team members to finish the work that they started. When you’re coming in to help, make sure they’re ready to make the handoff. More importantly, make sure you’re actually helping.
Prioritizing doesn’t just mean redistributing the work. It can mean not adding more to the worker’s plate, too. For example, you can cancel their meetings or push a new project to the next quarter so they have some running room. Again, make sure the worker has a say in the matter.
4. Give recognition: Acknowledging and celebrating accomplishments is a small thing. But small things add up over time and create a positive culture—just as repeated negative interactions lead to burnout.
Frequent positivity leads to improved morale, team confidence, and enthusiasm in the work. Explore ways to give recognition genuinely. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture—in fact, sometimes those can feel forced. A message at the end of a meeting saying “Good job!” may be all your workers need to feel appreciated.
5. Identify digital work patterns: Keep an eye on what changes. Ensure that old habits and new challenges don’t arise. Every worker, project, and season is unique—but if you look hard enough, you’ll find patterns. By understanding how each person works, how each project reaches completion, and how a successful Q2 looks in comparison to a dismal Q3, you’ll better position yourself to improve team health.
No more guessing. No more assumptions about what your team needs. It’s time to start the conversation and acquire the data that allows you to build a healthier remote team. If the only way you identify employee burnout is via lagging indicators, then you are not well-positioned to prevent it next time. You must be able to identify leading indicators as well.