Workplace burnout can happen at home, expert warns

TORONTO — As the COVID-19 pandemic keeps many Canadians working from home, one expert is warning about the long-term effects of working remotely including burnout and stress.

While some employees may be happy to continue working from the comfort of their homes, Queen’s University professor Nita Chhinzer cautioned that there are downsides to working in the same space one lives in.

“When you start to work from home for a long period of time you run some risks, those risks include getting overlooked for promotions and development opportunities, sometimes feeling a lack of meaningfulness from our work, which leads to emotional exhaustion and sometimes burnout,” Chhinzer said Tuesday during an interview with CTV News Channel.

Chhinzer, who works in the Queen’s Department of Management, said workplace burnout can happen at home as many employees face additional stress and uncertainty from the pandemic including financial strains, fear of job loss, health issues or having to take care of children and older family members.

“We may have situations where there are a lack of awareness regarding our development opportunities. And of course, there’s the all encompassing gender issue where we know women are kind of taking on a little bit more of that responsibility for homework and childcare, and that seems to be almost a double shift which highlights some of the gender inequities,” Chhinzer explained.

Chhinzer said one of the main differences between working remotely or in an office is communication.

And it’s not necessarily about what’s said, “simply because so much of our communication is nonverbal, and with our move to the online platform, a lot of that communication is lost,” Chhinzer explained.

With most communication now happening virtually, Chhinzer said messages can be misinterpreted without the nonverbal clues such as gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, eye contact and body language that typically accompany them.

Additionally, Chhinzer said working remotely has created concern for management who worry about the mental and physical health of their employees.

“A lot of the conversations I’ve been having with the HR executives that I chat with is, really, they’re concerned about how they’re supposed to evaluate performance of their workers, they’re concerned about whether the workers are doing well [and] whether they’re identifying where they’re not doing well…” Chhinzer said.

A lack of work-life balance is a major contributor to workplace burnout, according to Chhinzer. She said working from home can make it even harder to achieve that balance.

“For the employees, one of the things they need to do is find ways to advocate for themselves and to carve out their work time. So that means setting up a regular schedule for work time, announcing that to your family, and indicating that during this time you’re off limits, there’s to be no distractions,” Chhinzer said.

She added that establishing a work routine at home is key, too.

“Treat work like if it was something we’d physically go into. So get up in the morning and have your breakfast, get ready and get into that mental state of mind when it comes to your work.”

Chhinzer said employees can start to feel isolated while working remotely because they no longer have that sense of meaningfulness that going into an office previously gave them.

“There’s so many of us who derive so much meaning from the work that we’re doing, and understanding how that fits within the bigger picture of the organization, within the bigger picture of our team,” Chhinzer said.

When that team aspect is missing, Chhinzer said employees can feel secluded.

“We feel isolated from our team, we feel isolated from our work and we no longer drive that meaning. That is the largest trigger for things like work dissatisfaction, intention to leave, and it also reduces our productivity because we’re not just motivated as much as we used to be when we’d go into the office,” Chhinzer said.

Chhinzer acknowledged that it may be difficult to separate one’s work and home life when they are happening in the same space, however she said scheduling social time with colleagues can help.

“Part of that advocacy also means making sure that you’re finding meaning in your work so set up regular scheduled programs with your colleagues in social and non social settings,” Chhinzer said.

For example, Chhinzer and some of her colleagues play board games together online after work hours.

“It’s a small way we stay connected,” she said.

While scheduling social time and establishing a work environment during certain hours can help employees manage their stress, Chhinzer said the employer also has a role to play.

“Employers need to be much more proactive about managing the work from home experience, and that includes eliminating stigma associated with people asking for help because they’re working from home and they’re stuck with something,” she said.

Chhinzer explained that employers should offer employees opportunities for webinars to learn how to better use remote resources. She said they should also reach out to their workers in “informal ways” to check in on their well-being.

“Whether that means assigning an informal mentor, whether that means extending the agenda for a meeting to say ‘Let’s check in informally’ to bring back that feeling of meaningfulness of work,” Chhinzer said.

“[Because] these are very real risks for a lot of work from home employees in the long term.”

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