Remote Work Doesn’t Have to be a Recipe for Burnout

The three questions that will help you bring your A-game to every personal and professional role you play.

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Let’s not sugarcoat this. This has not been the spring we expected. Our personal lives have been turned upside down and work is anything but “business as usual.” Even as we try to appreciate this forced slowdown of our lives, we face new challenges trying to do our jobs while concurrently worrying if our kids will ever go to school again, whether we will have jobs in six months, and if we will be lucky enough to snag a coveted grocery delivery slot. To top it all off, many of us are juggling all of this in less than ideal settings.

Like me, I’m sure you have heard many crazy stories about how these challenges are playing out in households everywhere. My personal favorite came from the parent who gave his daughter strict rules about not interrupting his conference call except in an emergency; imagine dad’s surprise upon seeing a police cruiser in his driveway because she followed his rules and, instead of interrupting his conference call, called 911 for help getting her new puppy’s paw dislodged from the fence slats. I bet this makes you feel better about the snafus happening in your home.

But humorous stories aside, if the right pieces are in place, remote work can be enormously beneficial to both employee and the employer. This is really good news because when this pandemic is over, many employers will either permit or require us to continue working remotely. The question is: How can we do it really well? The strategies vary depending on your situation; however, everyone will benefit from understanding that many of the same issues that lead to stress and burnout in our traditional workplaces are also very present at home: competing priorities, unclear boundaries, and miscommunication.

In my experience coaching on work/life issues, I have found when you can answer the following three questions, you are better positioned to set up a remote work arrangement where the work gets done well, yet not at the expense of personal well-being:

1. “What are my biggest concerns?” 

To be most effective, you must first identify what you are most worried about. Are your anxious that a tenuous professional relationship will be tested by this new arrangement? Were you on track for a promotion and now concerned that it will be more challenging to stay visible and demonstrate your value? Are you worried that working from home with your spouse will put a strain on your marriage? Be brutally honest as you evaluate your concerns as it will be this insight that informs how to best answer the next critical question:

2. “What do I need to make this work?” 

Only you know what is most important for you in establishing an effective remote work arrangement; don’t rely on others to identify or anticipate your needs. Do you need large blocks of uninterrupted time? A workspace with a door? Time to exercise every day? Several hours of early morning work time? An upgraded laptop that won’t unexpectedly crash? Reassurances that you won’t always be the default parent when your child is sick? The possibilities are endless but the answers will provide a roadmap for how you will set up your work environment, schedule, and personal boundaries.

Since successful remote work is a shared responsibility between everyone involved, ask each person in the household and every member of the work team to also articulate what they need to function effectively; the discussions that follow will be crucial in understanding how to navigate this new arrangement. A proactive conversation about how frequently your manager wants status updates goes a long way in preventing frustration for both parties, just as an advance discussion about who will walk the dog in the middle of the day will be better than partners glaring at each other when you are both facing deadlines.

Also, remember that even as candid and frequent communication will help reduce avoidable stress, don’t expect anyone’s personality to suddenly change just because the circumstances are different; if your introverted partner needs time alone at end of the day to recharge, he will still need that time and likely even more so now; if your manager was a micromanager when your desks sat side-by-side in the same office, she probably won’t be any different now that you’re working at a distance. Great communication with everyone you interact with will prevent a lot of problems but it won’t perform miracles.

Finally, as you evaluate what you need to get the actual work done, don’t forget to also consider how you will care for yourself and prevent burnout:

3.      What are the boundaries I need for my health and well-being?

Despite manager fears that remote employees aren’t as productive as when they are working onsite, the truth is actually quite the opposite; when working from home, people tend to overwork and have difficulty disconnecting from their professional responsibilities. For this reason, remote workers must be extra careful not to set themselves up for burnout. A helpful strategy is to establish set hours when you begin and end each workday, and when you will eat lunch and take breaks. Consider building regular activities into your schedule that help you make the psychological transition to and from work; you might want to start your day with a video coffee chat with a colleague and wrap the day by heading out for a run. Be extra mindful of your weekends as well; it’s fine if catching up on some work over the weekend is helpful to you, but it’s still very important to set rules about when (and for how many hours) you will work on Saturday and Sunday.

The particulars of your life will determine how to realistically structure your day, and your situation may prove more challenging than the circumstances of others; working from home with young children underfoot or while caring for elderly parents is extremely stressful. However, the principal is the same for everyone: maintaining clear work/home boundaries is critical. It is these boundaries that will help you take care of yourself, sleep, and recharge—all necessary components for bringing your A-game to every personal and professional role you play.  

Originally written by Faun Zarge and published in j-VOICE Monthly

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