Pandemic instability has many people retreating to their home offices. But as burnout persists, one expert says that working from home may be part of the problem. The antidote, according to Dr. Jennifer Garvey Berger, is getting staff back to in-person work.
As society moves through various stages of the pandemic, each year has been difficult in different ways – from devastating illness and lockdowns to abrupt changes in where we work. The instability has left many workers instinctively feeling like they want to hunker down and stay home.
During these intense, excessively volatile few years, many employees are also reporting burnout – that feeling of low energy and exhaustion, negativity and overall low effectiveness at work.
The antidote, according to at least one expert, may not be what one expects.
Dr. Jennifer Garvey Berger is the CEO of Cultivating Leadership, PhD graduate of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and author of four books on the topic of leading in complexity. Staying home, she says, is not the antidote to burnout.
Now more than ever, Garvey Berger says, it’s important for executives to encourage employees to return to the office.
What is Employee Burnout?
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
Burnout comes with a real cost to employees, the organization and society. Not only are workers not as productive, but they also experience significant cognitive and neuroendocrine systems impairments, which affects functioning of their brain and can contribute to other health issues, including heart disease.
Burnout is specific to circumstances at work, not by circumstances at home. Heavy workloads, toxic relationships, unfair treatment, lack of role clarity or heavy time pressures are often the primary causes of burnout.
But, in today’s environment, Garvey Berger argues that burnout can come from an additional source: all the changes that employees face by disruptions in the workplace and the world.
When COVID-19 struck in 2020, most workplaces outside of first responders and healthcare workers hit the ‘pause’ button. Employees and executives alike postponed meetings, travel and deadlines. It was almost as if the world had stopped.
As people started returning to work, economic activity has surged impacting supply chains, swamping air travel and intensifying time pressures. What’s more, the pandemic continues to pose very real health risks.
A 2021 survey by the American Psychological Association on work and well-being found that 71 percent of the 1,501 respondents had experienced work-related stress. Nearly 60 percent reported negative impacts of this stress, including lack of interest and effort, as well as emotional and physical exhaustion. These negative impacts were a 38 percent increase over 2019.
A survey by Ipsos in June 2022, found that 74 percent of Canadian workers had returned to the workplace. Yet, many did not want to.
Craving simplicity in complex times
Programmed for simplicity, Garvey Berger says humans mostly crave a simple life, in which we can predict and control our environments.
But the world is not simple right now. Even though our minds want simplicity, we are living in a world that is the opposite of these cravings.
She gives a great example. Accountants used to rely on their experience and a well-defined set of data to understand historical accounts and predict a narrow set of future possibilities. They knew their clients personally, they knew the accounting codes, and they understood the organization. But, today, accountants have to deal with automation and a rapidly changing business environment. They have no idea what will happen in five years. Their old leadership tools can’t help them control, plan and predict – similar to what many of us have experienced.
In these complex times, people start feeling anxious, overwhelmed and exhausted. Generally speaking, people seek novelty and love complexity – until they hit a tipping point and there is too much novelty and complexity. Then, people want to return to simplicity. They want to simply work from home, for fear of burning out.
But what if working from home contributing to burnout?
It is in exactly in these complex, volatile environments that Garvey Berger argues employees need connection.
Employees might feel like hunkering down, but being back at the office can help build connections. That human contact is an important aspect of dealing with the complexity all around us, she says. Returning to work helps to build a sense of safety, well-being and belonging. It also fosters creativity and helps to solve problems.
During the lockdowns, shifted to the online, digital world. They were being governed by ‘to do’ lists, and days that were fragmented and constantly interrupted. The number touchpoints grew, even though employees didn’t leave their desks.
Even though employees were ‘connected’, they were starved for ‘connection’. They wanted to move from ticking items off of ‘to do’ lists to sitting down and having conversations – conversations that are nourishing and foster deep conversations and light laughter.
These human connections mitigate burnout.
If executives want to increase productivity in the long term and have employees solve complex problems, they need to focus on creating those bonds in our workplaces, she says. And, as it turns out, the return to in-person work may be the antidote that many are looking for.