Devin FosterApril 06, 2021
Topics: Employee Experience

Reversing Remote Work Burnout: Insights from Gallup

This blog post recaps the April 1 episode of Talent Experience Live, featuring Gallup’s Dr. Ben Wigert and Jillian Anderson, who shared exclusive Gallup survey findings showing high levels of burnout among at-home employees. They also explained how organizations can turn things around to help remote workers thrive.

More than a year into the pandemic, employees are really feeling the stress (rather than joy) of working from home, and there’s much more to the story than long hours and poor work-life balance.

Organizations can turn things around to help remote workers thrive — but the process starts with getting to the root causes of the problem. On Talent Experience Live, Dr. Ben Wigert and Jillian Anderson of Gallup shared how employers can make meaningful progress. Watch the full episode here, and catch highlights below!

Tracking Employee Burnout Before and During Covid-19

The past five years of Gallup's research shows significant increases in burnout, Wigert said, with the prevalence of smart devices and globalization influencing 24/7 work patterns.

And then, 2020's pandemic and its uncertainty introduced massive levels of stress to the workforce. It suddenly sent 65% of employees home to figure out how to work in isolation (or with an entire household in their new “office").

“It was like pouring gas on a fire, and that’s probably an understatement,” Wigert said.

Gallup Data Reveals a Wellbeing-Engagement Paradox

According to the most recent Gallup research, employee wellbeing plummeted after Covid-19, dropping to 46.5% in April 2020. Wellbeing hit the lowest levels recorded since the Great Recession.

Daily stress and worry spiked in March and April and then became chronic throughout 2020 with remote workers reporting substantially higher levels.

“A lot of people were balancing many, many things, in particular this past year, all in the same space around them," Anderson said. "And we’re feeling different kinds of pressures that seem to amplify some of those things we were starting to see before Covid hit."

Surprisingly, employee engagement remained steady on a macro level throughout the year. Despite deep dips during periods of social unrest, it rebounded to historically high levels. Engagement was higher among at-home workers than onsite workers, the data shows.

What happens when employee wellbeing is low, but engagement is high?

“You have this scenario we’re calling the wellbeing-engagement paradox, where you have wellbeing pulled down dramatically while employee engagement is floating in the other direction … and that’s a recipe for burnout,” Wigert said.

A Recipe for Remote Work Burnout

Burnout is a direct result of remote employees pouring energy into their work while struggling with the stress of poor work-life balance. Gallup found that at-home employees experience a sense of failure, feeling unseen, unclear communication from managers, and unreasonable time pressures.

“That paradox will have to sort itself out,” Anderson said. “I think that’s the critical juncture that any organization is at. How do you sustain that engagement? It’s not going to happen if we don’t also address the wellbeing question.”

Impacts of Employee Burnout

According to the World Health Organization, unmanaged burnout results in:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distancing and negative feelings about work
  • Reduced professional efficacy

Employees experiencing burnout are 63% more likely to take sick days and 2.6 times more likely to look for a different job.

“It’s not just the long hours,” said Anderson. “It’s getting to the end of the day, and still not feeling a sense of personal accomplishment.”

WEBINAR: How to Empower Employees to Take Charge of Their Careers

Root Causes of Burnout and How to Turn Them Around

It’s up to organizations as a whole and individual managers to respond to burnout by taking action to ensure a stronger, better workforce; not the remote employees who are chronically stressed and disconnected.

By understanding the five primary root causes of burnout among remote workers, employers can better plan to prevent it:

  • Unfair treatment at work
  • Unmanageable workload (with competing or constantly changing priorities)
  • Unclear communication from managers
  • Lack of support from manager
  • Unreasonable time pressures

READ MORE: Movement Matters: How Managers Should Reinvent and Encourage Career Growth

Based on its research, Gallup concludes that the top priority to focus on is creating a culture where employees can do their best work.

How Managers Can Help Remote Employees Fight Burnout

Managers play a crucial role in preventing employee burnout. Anderson said employees are 62% less likely to feel burnout symptoms if they feel listened to.

Managers should be guided by and address the most basic needs individuals have in the workplace, she said. These include feeling focused, free from unnecessary stress, positioned to do work that plays to strengths, and recognized and validated.

Here’s how managers can help make sure these basic needs are met – and that burnout stays at bay.

1. Ask and listen. This is the #1 thing managers can do, Anderson said. Ask employees what they need to perform their jobs well. Create a safe place for employees to share concerns, including personal needs and societal issues. Leaders should encourage employees to be vocal about their experiences with external stressors.

2. Prioritize projects and tasks. Collaborate with employees to determine priorities, giving employees as much control and flexibility as possible, which all boost autonomy, an important factor in wellbeing.

3. Remove obstacles. Eliminate unnecessary steps and stressors in work processes.

4. Connect and validate. Especially among remote employees, encourage teamwork and partnering. Know your workers’ strengths, and connect their contributions to the bigger picture, which increases sense of purpose.

Organization-Level Changes to Reduce Burnout

Organizations need to take steps to sustain engagement and increase wellbeing, as companies start to return to circumstances that somewhat resemble "normal."

“The organizations that will win the war for talent in the future won’t be thinking about just engagement, but they’ll be thinking about engagement and wellbeing in connection to performance, because those are intersecting more than ever,” Anderson said.

At the organizational level, this means supporting employee wellbeing with policies and goals, including:

  • Tying employee engagement and wellbeing to manager performance.
  • Focusing on the role of manager as coach (not boss!). Managers should be expected to uphold values of engagement.
  • Building flexibility into job roles themselves and the way they’re managed.

BLOG: Anywhere Work: What Hybrid Work Means for Engagement, Compensation and Business

Prevent Device Burnout

For remote workers, technology can be a double-edged sword: It keeps us all connected, but contributes to the always-on nature of working from home.

The key is to ensure technology and devices add to employee wellbeing rather than detract from it. Employers can help by creating boundaries, such as making sure to end virtual meetings on time or even a little early.

Prioritize Flextime Over Salary

Salary is important, but in most cases the employee experience plays a much bigger role in wellbeing.

“What we see is that if an employee is engaged, it would take about a 20% pay increase to get them to leave their job,” Wigert said.

For remote workers, flextime must become a permanent fixture of the culture. “If organizations aren’t taking that flexibility seriously going forward, they’re going to have trouble attracting and retaining top talent,” Wigert said.

For more data and research on preventing employee burnout, visit Gallup Resources on Wellbeing.

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