Remote Workers Experiencing Burnout

Many report neglecting earned PTO

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer May 29, 2020
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feeling burnout

​Recent polling shows a significant share of the U.S. workforce is feeling burned out after more than two months of working from home during the coronavirus outbreak.

About half of 1,251 respondents in a survey conducted in May by job-search and careers website Monster said they were experiencing burnout. Even before COVID-19 upended workers' lives, the World Health Organization had classified burnout as an "occupational phenomenon" and a hazard. 

"The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we work, where we work, resulted in clashes between our work and home lives like we've never had before, and really has become a big stressor," said Melissa Jezior, president and CEO of Eagle Hill Consulting, a Washington, D.C.-based management consulting firm.

Binita Amin, a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., warned that the dangers of burnout are typically greater than just feeling stressed. "Stress is something that is resolved and has some sort of closure, and with burnout there's no real end in sight, so it's significant and chronic in nature," she said. "What happens over time is you start to see that a person's mental, physical and emotional resources are exhausted and depleted. In the work context, you can see it in terms of decreased productivity, difficulty concentrating, and certainly feelings of disillusionment or cynicism."

In a survey of 1,000 workers polled by Eagle Hill in April, 50 percent said they feel less connected to colleagues, 45 percent feel less productive, and 36 percent feel less positive about their careers.

The particular stressors brought on by COVID-19 include overworking and adapting to new ways of working; caring for children in the absence of school or day care; job insecurity; health concerns; isolation; and the lack of clear boundaries between work and home, said Vicki Salemi, a careers expert for Monster based in New York City. "People have also lost many of the ways they used to manage stress, such as spending time with friends, going to concerts and sporting events, and going to the gym," she said.

The Monster poll did find that almost three-quarters of respondents (71 percent) are making an effort to take time for themselves during the workday, such as taking a break or going for a walk. But over half of respondents (52 percent) said they are not planning to take extended time off or vacation despite facing burnout.

Salemi said that people may be reluctant to book a vacation because of financial reasons, the fear of being perceived as not being productive, or concerns about public safety. "Some people are just not ready to go to the beach, while other destinations, like amusement parks, are not really open for business," she said.

"Even if you're not going anywhere, you earned PTO [paid time off], and you should take it," she encouraged. "Using PTO doesn't necessarily mean you have to get on an airplane and fly away somewhere. It can mean taking a staycation. Perhaps people are thinking, 'Well, I'm already home, and I don't need a staycation,' but the reality is that we all need to log off."

She said there are ways to creatively take PTO, such as taking off every Monday or Friday in the month of July, for example.

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Employers' Role

Employers can play a big part in helping address burnout among their employees, experts said. Affinity groups and employee assistance programs should be promoted as helpful resources, but there's even more that managers can do, according to Amin. "There's real opportunity to empower your employees to feel more sense of control over things like schedules, workload and types of work assignments, and even influencing things like meaningful connection," she said.

Lack of control is a prime factor of burnout, Jezior said. "Right now, there is a lot outside of our control. But I think one way we can help ground employees is to give them the autonomy and the ownership over how and when they complete their work."

Salemi recommended getting feedback from employees about their workload and work-from-home processes to make sure expectations are aligned and they feel supported. She stressed that managers and leadership should lead by example and encourage employees to take advantage of flexible work options.

"Make an announcement to the team or the organization that it's OK to take time off, even without having someplace to travel to," she said. "Encourage them to take time off."

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