Editor's note: This column is part of a series featuring Lakeshore experts offering advice to small businesses as they navigate their recovery through the COVID-19 crisis.
The pandemic has forced employers and employees into work situations they never imagined, with widespread use of remote work as a means of continuing business operations in the face of public health directives precluding the performance of on-site work. Many employees relished the thought of escaping the ever-watchful eyes of supervisors and co-workers, and the opportunity to work from the comfort of their homes. So, how has the initial enthusiasm aged as the weeks of remote work are turning into months?
I've connected with Mark Smith, an employment attorney and fellow shareholder at my firm, to share what we are hearing from both West Michigan employers and employees.
That initial embrace of at-home work is losing its luster as the pandemic continues and employees contemplate a long-term future of working at home. Surveys show that 51% of employees report stress and burnout as a result of working at home.
What is responsible for the burnout?
The most often cited reasons for burnout are, surprisingly, the very things that made remote work seem attractive. Some dress in sweats because they are not seeing anyone, then find the relaxed comfort makes it difficult to fully engage. Their clothing signals fun while their tasks are anything but. While remote work seemed liberating, many employees relied on supervision and structure to manage their workday. Without it, many have found it hard to be as productive and are stressed about not completing tasks in a timely manner.
Attorney Mark Smith
There are other stressors, as well. The absence of a clear boundary between work and home makes it difficult to plug into or unplug from work. The divided demands in a unified environment can be unsettling. A call from a client comes in while the dog clearly needs a bathroom break; which of these takes priority? The employer probably has a different answer than the employee.
Loneliness and isolation also are major sources of burnout and stress. People by nature are social creatures. Sitting alone at a computer all day does not check the social box for those used to daily interaction with co-workers. Those who disdained constant workplace interruptions might find themselves waxing nostalgic for the previously unwelcome co-worker. While many employers use cyber-communications, such as Zoom or GoToMeeting, to keep employee teams connected, the process is less than fulfilling to many employees.
Technology itself is a source of stress and burnout. Many offices are equipped with top-notch technology and internet connections. Most home offices rely upon the family computer and shared internet — both likely a step down from the regular work environment, leading to tasks taking far longer.
Some tools to battle burnout and stress
Employers need to be mindful that employee stress and burnout are commonplace in the new remote environment. Here are some tips to help employees deal with the challenges and remain productive.
- Give employees stress management techniques — yoga, exercise, a break to connect with co-workers.
- Encourage virtual team meetings to preserve connections with co-workers.
- Have employees set office hours and limit email and phone responses after hours.
- Have metrics in place to measure performance.
- Have employees dress for work, which reinforces time on and off the clock.
- Have employees use "do not disturb" signs on home office doors, set rules regarding interruptions by family members and use noise-canceling headphones for meetings.
- Encourage employees to take PTO days.
- Encourage employees to stay out of their "office" after hours and to enjoy a hobby that does not involve a computer screen.
- Give regular updates regarding organization and plans for future work performance.
- Perform technology and work station audits to confirm reasonable working conditions.
No one has a crystal ball as to when or even if the tide will reverse from remote work back to the more traditional on-site office setting. Until that occurs, employers need to be on the lookout for employee burnout and use various tools to address and combat it.
Peter D. Rhoades has called the Lakeshore home since attending Hope College and beginning his solo-private law practice in Holland in 1993. Engaged in numerous community organizations, Peter continues to serve as a board member and past chair of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Holland. Over five years ago, he joined Rhoades McKee, which also includes his sister, Mary Jane Rhoades. Rhoades McKee, a full-service comprehensive law firm with offices in Holland, Hastings, and Grand Rapids, was founded by his father, Dale Rhoades, in 1959.
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