- Chris Litster is the leader of Buildium.
- Workers going remote during pandemic — and not taking time off — is the perfect recipe for burnout.
- But burnout doesn’t have to be inevitable; doing things like setting clear start and end hours, and scheduling in downtime during the day is important.
- Leaders should also enforce PTO, and make sure employees are take time off.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
If I think back to my first experience working from home — as a remote director with IBM back in the early 2000s — what I remember most is that damn blinking red light.
As “at-home” workers, we were told to leave our laptops open at all times and to stay logged into an early chat app called Sametime. When someone pinged you, it would blink red.
And you were expected to answer. Day or night.
Fast forward to today, and not only am I working remotely again, but so is my entire team. It hasn’t always been easy, but we’ve all adapted to working from home. What I’m realizing, though, is that we still need to learn something just as critical: how not to work from home. How to turn off. How to disconnect. How to ignore that “blinking red light.”
This may seem a trivial thing against the backdrop of a global pandemic, nation-wide protests and record unemployment. But burnout, and its consequences, is real. Ignoring it right now is a recipe for trouble, both personally and professionally.
I’ve seen this up close as the leader of a property management platform business with 400-plus employees. Now more than ever, it’s critical for leaders to spot the risks and preempt burnout before it happens. Even more importantly, we need to cultivate a real culture of downtime that sets teams up for success today and moving forward.
We’re in a burnout code red.
If there were a perfect storm for burnout, this would be it.
Start with a global crisis that has people fearful and anxious. Then, ask them to radically change how they do their job — removing offices, colleagues and the whole support system that goes with that from the equation. Factor in added family stress at home, with kids out of school and parents thrust into the role of full-time caregivers and teachers. There’s also intense political upheaval and a profound reckoning with racial injustice, taking place right in front of our eyes, in real time, both online and offline.
Complicating this, the dividing line between home and office has been erased. That blinking red light, so to speak, is always there, demanding attention: an unread email, the ping of a Slack message, a Zoom call request. The old stopgap of leaving problems at the office (or at home, for that matter) doesn’t apply anymore.
The result: Those working from home in the US right now are averaging an 11 hour workday, according to one March study, up 40% from the usual eight-hour shift. Meanwhile, vacation time is dropping dramatically — more than one in four employees say they’ll take fewer days off this summer specifically because of COVID-19. No wonder 73% of respondents in a recent survey report exhaustion due to lack of work-life boundaries, unmanageable workload and lack of control. It’s safe to say we’re not so much working from home anymore as living at work.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Burnout doesn’t have to be inevitable. Finding simple ways to create more balanced days, while ensuring people take a real vacation this summer, can make all the difference. These steps are by no means comprehensive, but they’ve helped me and our team work toward a sustainable way forward:
Step 1: Perspective setting and communication
For leaders, reversing the burnout cycle can start with perspective setting. This crisis, and the work disruptions that go with it, is a marathon, not a sprint. The reality is “business as usual” won’t resume any time soon. Heroic hours and an always-on mentality just aren’t a recipe for long-term success, and employees need to know this.
Ultimately, you want to equip your team with the resilience and energy to see you through these challenges to the other side. This means communicating the message that rest and balance matter, and offering tactical steps to make that happen. Shopify, the e-commerce giant, has gone so far as to extend three-day weekends through August to help employees recover. Not every business has this luxury. But even setting clear parameters for when a workday begins and ends can solidify the importance of separating work time and personal time.
Step 2: Scheduling downtime in your workday
When we first found ourselves working from home, my calendar overflowed with Zoom meetings — and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. I was on calls all day long, without time to actually get any work done, not to mention take the spontaneous brain breaks that normally happen in the office. I ended up getting down to business late at night, extending my work day by hours, while cutting into family time.
All this changed when I turned my calendar from enemy into ally. I’ve learned to put DNS (Do Not Schedule) blocks in my calendar — treating breaks the same as any other commitment. Just getting up from the desk and stepping away from the computer for a few minutes is a powerful restorative — better still if you’re able to take a brief walk and connect with nature or the larger outside world.
I’ve also plugged dedicated “Work” blocks into my calendar, which can’t be interrupted by meetings. This idea isn’t radically new — the “no-meeting Wednesday” concept has been around for years. (And, to be honest, I still respond to Slack throughout the day.) But blocking time like this can be especially handy in a WFH context.
Step 3: Playing PTO enforcer
If you look at the stats, you might assume that summer vacation has been cancelled. Twenty-eight percent of office workers predict taking less time off this year; 56% have cancelled their travel plans outright. I saw this trend at our company, too. During the initial weeks of the crisis, paid time off (PTO) dipped to practically zero. On one level, that’s not surprising — with the world under lockdown, most people weren’t thinking about jaunting off to a tropical destination.
But here’s the thing: taking a break, even if it’s just powering down the laptop and hanging out on your patio for a few days, is vital for mental and physical well-being. After seeing those PTO figures, I made one thing very clear to my team: we don’t need superhumans, we need humans. Taking time off is showing your commitment to the job. I don’t make many edicts as a leader, but this was one: PTO must be taken.
Now, our team leads are checking in with their people to make sure vacation days are being booked off, just like any other year — and they’re following up, insistently, to make sure it happens. It may sound strange, but getting serious about time off is important right now, so it’s worth putting processes in place to encourage your team to actually plan for and take the time they need.
Step 4: Prioritizing “presence”
The real goal here is neither touchy-feely nor easy to achieve. We want people to be present in all aspects of their lives: present at work and present with their families, and able to bring their whole self to both of these endeavours. If either piece is missing, the whole suffers.
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I totally understand that businesses have commitments to customers and shareholders, and that targets need to be hit whether or not there’s a global crisis. But we simply can’t bring our best to work if we’re anxious, uncertain or overburdened in other facets of our lives. Study after study has shown that downtime, in the right doses, actually boosts productivity at work. Deeper still, there are real health costs to not addressing high levels of stress over the long haul, everything from depression and anxiety to heart disease and high blood pressure.
All of which is why cultivating a culture of downtime should be anything but an afterthought. Critically, this is not something that will simply come naturally, especially in a WFH context. For companies and their employees, getting serious about it — learning how to take time off while working from home — is a key step in weathering this crisis and emerging stronger on the other side.