Why remote workers may be prone to burnout and how to avoid it

Remote, async work in a mission-driven startup can be the perfect environment to slide toward burnout. Here’s how we try to mitigate it.

Written By

Laura Mize

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Working remotely can be terrific. You can trade a lengthy commute for a pick-me-up yoga session or walk. You can optimize your work environment for your own comfort and productivity and stock your kitchen with your favorite brain-boosting snacks.

But what happens when the “work where you want, how you want” approach overtakes your days … and nights … to the point that you can no longer distinguish your professional grind from your personal life?

The answer can be burnout.

What is Burnout, and How Common is it?

Burnout can mean many things, but it’s often characterized by feeling like you just can’t muster the energy to do any more. As HelpGuide puts it, “Being burned out means feeling empty and mentally exhausted, devoid of motivation, and beyond caring. People experiencing burnout often don’t see any hope of positive change in their situations.”

Other symptoms that might suggest burnout include:

  • You catch yourself becoming a cynic in situations where you might not have otherwise been in the past. Your patience might be running low.
  • You question if you’re the right person to keep moving this role forward.
  • You know that no amount of money, incentive, or change would make you feel that much better about the situation. Those all feel like bandaids, so they’re not worth exploring.
  • You don’t know *how* you got to this point, but you’re here now.

Burnout is not the same as overwork or excessive stress but is often on the same continuum. And being on that spectrum is not rare.

A 2021 American Psychiatric Association survey of 1,000 adult remote workers showed that 17% of them feel isolated or lonely all the time, and almost two-thirds feel this way at least sometimes. About half (45%) of respondents reported they sometimes have trouble getting away from work at the end of a work day, while 22% said that they always do.

For managers and founders, guarding against burnout isn’t just a way to be nice to employees; it’s necessary to protect a business’s greatest asset—its people—and its ability to keep moving forward.     

As Clever’s Roli Saxena told First Round’s entrepreneur-focused online publication, The Review, “Burnout is deadly to startups because it kills perspective.”

Unique Burnout Risks at Levels

Levels is deeply intentional about being not just remote but asynchronous as well. That means employees have even more freedom to mold their work schedule to their life, but it also presents unique risks that can make people even more susceptible to burnout. With no company-fixed boundaries around work and no regular sync contacts that can see when you’re overworking, it’s easier to let work take over your life.

And being an early-stage startup on a mission to solve the metabolic health crisis can compound the risk of sliding toward burnout, as Head of Operations Michael Mizrahi and Head of Growth Ben Grynol explored in a recent episode of the company podcast A Whole New Level.

“We have a big, exciting mission,” Mizrahi noted. “We have people doing the work of their lives, something that they care deeply about, that’s personal because they have family members affected. We have peers and coworkers who are high performers. You look left, and you look right, and you see people just working hard and doing great work with a lot of really good output.”

Being surrounded by talented colleagues—without visibility into how they’re managing their work-life balance—can create the impression that pouring oneself into work is the only way to stay relevant or live up to expectations. That can lead to overwork, feeling like you simply can’t do enough to keep up in the time you have. Too long working under that pressure is a sure path to burnout.

Strategies for Steering Employees Away from Burnout

With that in mind, Levels uses a combination of formal policies and general rules to help steer employees away from the danger zone. These are steps any company could take to help create an environment that doesn’t default toward burnout.

  1. Maintain a mandatory vacation and time-off policy that requires employees to take a week off quarterly and does not require anyone to work weekends. The policy specifies that vacations and time-off should be disconnected from work, not keeping in touch via smartphone. (Note this also build redundancy in the organization, which helps with #2.)
  2. Avoid parking responsibilities with any one person. Looping multiple people into any work process and leaning heavily into documentation means nothing falls apart when one person is out. Projects can continue moving forward, letting employees feel a bit easier about embracing time off and freeing their minds to soak up all the rest they can.
  3. Allow employees to prioritize their most important or most engaging work by saying “no” or “later” to assignments they cannot feasibly take on at the moment. Especially in a startup environment, ideas and opportunities for company improvement can flow freely. But sometimes, assignments must be shelved or put on hold out of respect for worker capacity. Encourage everyone to keep some slack in their schedule. 
  4. Don’t celebrate overworking like calling out someone who pulled an all-nighter. Instead, highlight employee engagement in other aspects of life. Normalize the sharing of a mid-morning hike or an extended vacation.
  5. Help employees connect, especially to share feelings of burnout or potential burnout. The idea is that colleagues may be able to support each other through burnout or help each other navigate around it altogether. Destigmatizing feelings of stress and overwork is vital. Building trust with colleagues can be tricky in an async environment, but creating an open dialog around these kinds of issues is crucial.
  6. Encourage employees to communicate with a manager if their roles have become unsustainable. Keeping a manager informed about potential burnout is critical. Managers need to keep an eye on worker habits, demeanor, and work product; connect employees with wellness-enhancing resources; and shift responsibilities to another worker as appropriate.

Another remote, async company, GitLab, specifies in its paid-time-off policy that managers need to address signs of burnout in employees by helping them exit “the burnout trap.”

“Don’t just tell people to take a break, but help them arrange things so they can take a break,” the policy reads. “Ask why they feel they can’t take a break (there are almost certainly real, concrete reasons) and then ask permission to get busy putting things in place that will overcome those barriers. People might be trapped by their own fatigue, being too worn out to find the creative solutions needed to take a break.”

Steps Employees Can Take to Prevent Burnout

Of course, employees also have a role to play in maintaining a healthy relationship with work, provided the conditions to do so are in place. Here are a few strategies that may help:

1. Make sure your schedule includes set obligations outside of work. It may seem counterintuitive, but non-work commitments can help a person avoid burnout more than a wide-open calendar can. Time-management consultant Laura Vanderkam wrote in a 2020 Fortune article about trends she found in time logs of remote employees.

“People with children or other caregiving responsibilities were far better at creating a stopping point, which makes sense,” Vanderkam wrote. “Someone has to send a sitter home or pick up the kids from daycare. 

“Wise managers can encourage people without kids to come up with other personal commitments that end the work day. Years ago, when I realized that I was half working and half surfing the web until 10 p.m. every night, I joined three community choirs. On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, I had to stop work around 6 p.m. to go to rehearsals. I became much more efficient—and happier.” 

This recommendation gets to what Mizrahi believes is at the heart of burnout: “that deeper piece of overinvesting your identity in work.”

2. Know what it means to be overinvested in work and maintain a Purpose Portfolio to defend your sense of self. Overinvesting in work is a pitfall that entails more than just spending too much time working, although that is often a factor. When your identity starts to be wrapped up in your work, you’re overinvested.

“If something goes wrong, an interaction goes sour, or a project gets derailed,” Mizrahi explained, “you feel that as a hit on yourself—on your character and your identity and your success potential—instead of seeing it as a challenge that you have to solve at work.”

Avoiding overinvestment requires intentionality. One strategy is always to maintain a “Purpose Portfolio,” an idea that Darren Murph, Head of Remote at GitLab, brought into the Levels conversation about burnout.

“Much like a portfolio of equities, we each require diversification to reach optimal fulfillment,” reads a Levels memo on burnou. “Over-indexing in work leaves investment in elements like family, hobbies, and community lacking. Like an equity portfolio, there may be seasons where an intentional imbalance achieves a goal. On longer arcs, make sure you are maintaining a balanced Purpose Portfolio.”

Fill your Purpose Portfolio with “non-negotiables” for maintaining a healthy life and mindset. For some people, these may be family dinner at home, story time with kids at bedtime, church attendance, regular runs outside, or a hobby that’s so engrossing you lose track of time.

Whatever brings a greater sense of purpose to your life, make sure you regularly invest time in it.

3. Physically separate your workspace. It’s easier to protect your time and keep your mind off work if you have a physical separation between your workspace and your eat/play/sleep spaces. As cozy as it may seem to prop your feet up and work from the living room couch, that’s not conducive to genuinely leaving work behind when it’s quitting time. 

“Ideally, you would use a small room that can hold a desk and computer equipment and whose door can be shut for the essential need to separate work life from home life,” Computerworld editor Galen Gruman wrote in a piece about creating long-term work-from-home spaces.

Absent such a room, Gruman recommends claiming “a niche space you can use that is out of the rest of the household’s way — and they out of yours — as much as possible.”

There’s also the option of plugging in at a co-working space. Most offer varying levels of privacy.

Finding a suitable remote workspace isn’t just essential for protecting personal time. It also increases efficiency by filtering out many types of personal distractions, thus making it easier to check tasks off your to-do list during work hours and leaving feeling like you’ve given it your all when it’s time to clock out.

After all, your work will still be there when you return.

Take steps like these to ensure your passion and unique perspective remain intact so you can do your job and, more importantly, live with a sense of wellness and purpose.

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