January 12, 2021
The pandemic and months of Zoom calls and remote work have begun to wear on us, so much so that in a recent survey from Blind – the anonymous workplace community app – 68 percent of respondents said that they are experiencing more feelings of being burnt out now, than they were before the pandemic began. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 29 percent of the respondents said their relationship with their direct boss was now worse than it had been before they began working remotely. And it’s not just top-down relationships at work that have deteriorated.
The survey also pointed to a troubling erasure between personal and professional life, with 60 percent of respondents saying that their work days have become longer as they have worked from home, despite the fact that their commute has been eliminated during these pandemic months.
Many employees might be surprised to realise their feelings of burnout come from working from home. Remote work is meant to be, in so many ways, easier than going to the office — It’s convenient, it offers a flexible schedule for families and working parents, and it avoids the dreaded time-suck that is a long commute.
But despite the comfort and convenience of working from our living room sofas, if you take a long hard look at working from home, you’ll realise its most significant drawback: without the presence of the physical office as a place to visit each day, remote work chips away at the delicate balance between work and home life, and without that delineation, burnout often ensues.
And what does that burnout feel like, you ask? Well, a recent article from Harvard Business Review describes it pretty vividly: It goes by different names: “pandemic fatigue,” “mental fog,” “work/life blur,” “extended vacuum,” and an “endless wait,” just to mention a few phrases I have heard leaders use. Clients mention that they are fed up and bored and that “2020 has been beyond heavy.” Even those working in booming industries report that they feel “emotionally amputated.” That same article cites a study by Mercer which offers a staggering perspective: of 270 insurance companies surveyed, mental health is now as much of a risk as smoking.
And that study didn’t come out of the blue. Previous studies have shown that as many as 75 percent of Brits crave the collaboration that comes from a physical office. Let’s take a closer look at why the return to the office is so important for workers’ mental health, and why it should be celebrated.
The office offers an opportunity for employees to connect with each other in person again, and as research suggests, in a post-Covid-19 world, the demand for flexible office space will continue to rise. Many aspects of our culture have been changed irrevocably in this pandemic, and office culture is no exception. Many companies are more than eager to help their employees handle the feelings of loneliness and isolation that they’ve been struggling with, but they aren’t equipped to do it alone. The office, however, is set up to help them with exactly this problem: it offers a community-building starter package of sorts, through benefits like professional workshops and happy hours that help rethread the social fabric of a workplace team, one event a time. And the best offices bolster this benefit with careful touches like modern interior design and fun break rooms stocked with snacks and drinks, which don’t just boost moods and productivity, they even jumpstart creativity.
This is why managers and team leaders need to have empathy for each other. The employee’s wellbeing needs to be a top concern. Managers must make it their ultimate priority to be there for their employees, and if they do that, the office can truly become a place that will break the chain of burnout for good.
Closing the divide
At home, there’s a yawning gap in access: those of us with better internet speeds get an unfair leg up at work, so much so that it’s been called a “digital divide” during the lockdown. And design touches like quiet space to work (away from screaming kids and nagging spouses), adequate light and even serotonin-boosting design bits like greenery have all been proven to boost creativity and improve focus. In addition, the top-notch sanitation and cleanliness protocols that are now at the forefront of all of our minds are only available to us in office spaces that are cleaned by professional teams — even the best housekeepers among us don’t have professional janitorial services tidying up after them on a daily basis!
Office spaces will need to dramatically transform post-pandemic. The office also provides a respite and safe haven for social interaction, the kind that simply can’t be found at home while juggling breakfast orders for the kids, sterile conference calls with the boss, and the long lonely slog of a workday spent staring at a screen and “commuting” between the couch, the sofa and a makeshift workstation.
When it comes down to it, the office adds multiple layers of happiness, connection and value to our lives, and it simply can’t be replaced via Zoom, conference call or virtual chat. We’ve all done our best to soldier on through these difficult months, and there’s no doubt we’ve enjoyed the comforts of being so close to home. But with those comforts have also come a lingering crisis. It’s time to break the burnout.