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WFH Burnout and Zoom Fatigue: Much More Complex Than We Think
Have you or your employees been feeling WFH burnout and Zoom fatigue these past months? It’s too common, despite the supposed convenience of working from home and using videoconferences to meet.
Due to the computer-based nature of their work, the large majority of HR professionals have been in the privileged position of working from home throughout the pandemic. Yet, despite the safety benefits of doing so, burnout has been an increasingly problematic issue — the result: lower retention rates, morale, engagement, and a decrease in quality decision-making.
Still, most appreciate the benefits of working from home. Most employees, in fact, have stated a preference to work remotely more than half the time or even permanently even after the pandemic. And most employers support their employees’ desire and have integrated remote working at some level into their post-pandemic operations. They find that employees working from home improves productivity and also allows companies to downsize office space, saving serious money. Yet to do so requires addressing work-from-home burnout.
Fix the Problem (Don’t Treat the Symptoms)
Unfortunately, the vast majority of efforts to address WFH burnout try to treat the symptoms without addressing the root causes. The problem stems from companies failing to adapt internally to the impact of COVID and the post-COVID recovery.
The vast majority had to make an abrupt shift to their employees working remotely. Everyone was in emergency mode and adapted their existing ways of interacting in “office culture” to remote work. That’s fine for an emergency, perhaps a month or two. But COVID is not a short-term emergency. Instead, it is a major, long-term disruptor.
Companies need to recognize that the fundamental root cause of WFH burnout stems from organizations adapting their existing ways of interacting in “office culture” to remote work. To address this problem requires a strategic re-evaluation of their internal structure, culture, and norms. They must plan for a much more virtual environment for the foreseeable future.
Using office-style culture to conduct virtual work is simply forcing a square peg into a round hole. You can do it if you push hard enough, but you’ll break off the corners. In this case, those “corners” are the social and emotional glue that bonds your employees to company culture. As was proven over the last several months, that peg will do in an emergency. But in the long run, those misused pegs will eventually start to crumble – just like your company culture.
So the first step toward fixing WFH burnout and Zoom Fatigue is to deal with the real problems. Twelve problems, to be exact.
The 12 Problems Leading to Work-From-Home Burnout and Zoom Fatigue
Combining expertise in emotional and social intelligence with research on the specific problems of working from home during COVID, I’ve untangled these two concepts into a series of factors:
1. Lack of meaning and purpose.
The vast majority of us don’t realize we aren’t simply experiencing work-from-home burnout. Instead, we’re deprived of the basic human needs of fulfillment, meaning and purpose that we get from work and our colleagues. After all, we tie much of our sense of self and identity, narratives, and sense of meaning-making to our work. That’s all severely disrupted by shifting to remote work.
2. A failure to meet our need for connection.
Our work community offers a key source of connection for many of us. Work-from-home cuts us off from much of our ability to connect effectively to our colleagues as human beings, rather than little squares on a screen. This lack of connection leaves many feeling out of touch, perhaps even isolated.
3. Little opportunity to build trust.
In an office setting, there is ample opportunity to build trust through informal interactions. This building of trust doesn’t happen naturally in virtual environments. Data shows teams that start off virtual work together substantially better after meeting in person. By contrast, teams that shift from in-person settings to virtual ones gradually lose that sense of shared humanity and trust.
4. Absence of mentorship and informal professional development.
A critical part of on-the-job learning stems from informal mentoring by senior colleagues. It also comes from the observational professional development you get from seeing how your colleagues do their jobs. Losing these opportunities for mentorship and moments of observation has proven incredibly challenging, especially for less-experienced employees.
5. Confusing “Zoom fatigue” with more significant human issues.
The “fatigue” people feel is a real experience, but it’s not about Zoom itself — or any other video conferencing software. The big challenge stems from our intuitive expectations about virtual meetings bringing us energy through connecting to people. However, those meetings fail to meet our basic need for connection; our emotions just don’t process videoconference meetings as truly connecting us on a human-to-human gut level.
6. Mis-managed “live” replacement therapies.
Getting back to our “square-peg-round-hole” analogy, many companies try to replace the social and emotional connection with Zoom happy hours and similar activities. While well-intended, these attempts to transpose in-person bonding events into virtual formats largely fail. Humans intuitively have elevated expectations about the quality of the interaction during meetings, so we end up disappointed and frustrated when our emotional (not to mention physical) needs haven’t been met.
7. Shortage of experience with virtual technology tools.
Many members of our workforce, especially in older generations – the non-digital natives, were never trained to best use virtual collaboration tools. Slack, Asana, and Zoom were new experiences for them. In addition to lowered productivity, this challenge results in frustrating experiences for those asked to communicate and collaborate virtually — many for the first time in their careers.
8. Shortage of skills in effective virtual communication.
Within many companies, especially where four generations are present in the workforce, it’s notoriously hard to communicate effectively even in person. Effective communication becomes much more difficult when in-office teams become virtual teams. A primary challenge in this area: Reliance on the written word, which makes it difficult to assess tone, intent, and even meaning.
9. Scarcity of clues provided by non-verbal communication.
Working virtually, we too often miss the casual interactions so vital to effective collaboration and teamwork. Specifically, body language and voice tone are essential to noticing brewing people and team problems. Unfortunately, virtual communication tools provide us fewer opportunities to detect such issues. Making it even worse for many teams: The growing trend to turn cameras off during virtual meetings.
10. Lowered standards of accountability.
In in-office environments, leaders and peers can easily walk around the office, visually observing what’s going on and checking in with their direct reports and colleagues on their projects. When working virtually, ignoring an email is much easier than someone stopping you in the hallway or standing in the doorway to your office. Many leaders and organizations have not yet found a way to replace real-time accountability with a version effective in remote work situations.
11. Poor work-from-home environments.
Some employees have access to quiet spaces and stable internet connections; they are quite proud of their home-office sanctuary, devices, bandwidth, etc. Others, though, struggle with this critical aspect of virtual work. For them, the changes brought about by the pandemic — including overhauling workspaces at home — have taken significant time and resources. Some are still not 100 percent ready.
12. Poor work/life boundaries.
Ineffective separation of work and life stems from both employer and employee actions. In a recent survey at TalentCulture, almost half of respondents said their boss expects them to be available “at any time.” For their part, employees have shown a lack of willingness to set mutually acceptable boundaries. In the long term, these failures cause lowered productivity, increased errors, and eventual WFH burnout.
WFH Burnout and Zoom Fatigue: A Solvable Problem
Work-from-home burnout and Zoom fatigue are much more complex than we think. As business leaders and employers needing to take on this challenge, we must reframe our company cultures and implement a wholesale strategic shift in operations. We must deliberately move from the “work from home emergency mode” to accepting remote work as the new long-term normal.
And we must provide our employees all the resources, training, and reskilling necessary for people — and our companies — to thrive within that new normal.