Morale, Mental Health, and Burnout in Remote Teams

9 minutes, 13 links


Updated March 23, 2023

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Morale and Mental Health Challenges

In a distributed team, it’s much harder for a manager to get an informal pulse for morale and mental health. You can’t manage by walking around; you don’t see who’s staying late or leaving early, who eats lunch alone at their desk, or who seems unusually withdrawn or dejected.

The very nature of remote work can also contribute to an environment where morale and mental health issues develop more easily and go unnoticed. Studies show that social isolation is correlated with mental health problems.* Loneliness, also associated with social isolation, both predicts depression and is a symptom of depression.* Loneliness and depression drive people to withdraw, often avoiding taking steps that could help them recover or manage. Loneliness also lowers a person’s ability to recognize social cues,* which isolates them further. This emotional disconnection is in turn highly linked to clinical anxiety and depression.* Anxiety and depression can change people’s perceptions of themselves and the world around them*—it is more likely that someone suffering from anxiety or depression will interpret an interaction as negative.

All of these factors create a pressure cooker for morale and mental health issues, and are likely to lead to burnout if not treated or addressed. In turn, overwork can precipitate these factors. Shedding light on the importance of mental health by creating an open and safe environment is an important first step for managers of remote teams. Managers can increase the chances of talking openly and respectfully about mental health by doing the following:

  • Modeling. Managers can talk about their own activities to support their mental health, and add their own therapist appointments to a public work calendar.

  • Sharing strategies. It helps to encourage discussions of specific strategies for managing anxiety or depression in dedicated venues, like a group chat channel dedicated to mental health.

  • Avoiding ableist terms. Don’t use terms like “crazy” or “insane” as adjectives or jokes.

  • Providing opt-in peer groups. Slack channels or email chains shared by all the company’s joggers or meditators or meal-planners can help encourage building healthy habits, even when people aren’t physically together.

  • Supporting mental health leave days. Allow personal days or mental health days as a form of sick leave. It’s good to make sure you know what kind of mental health benefits your company offers—if there aren’t any or they are minimal, you can talk to HR or even the CEO about increasing what’s offered.

  • Discussing openly and privately. Encourage mental health discussion in one-on-ones and in public forums and workshops. This helps build, and maintain, psychological safety on the team that is not just about raising issues about work-related tasks, but also about mental health and how to ask for help.

  • Fostering trust on your team. We cover this in detail in Building and Cultivating Trust in Remote Teams.

importantWhen sharing your own experiences, it’s critical never to disclose anyone else’s experience. If you’re trusted with a disclosure, best practice is to thank your direct report for their act of trust in you, and maintain their confidence.

cautionSimilarly, you will want to be sensitive around transmitting your own problems to direct reports, and make sure you avoid oversharing in a way that’s unhelpful—trying to garner sympathy, artificially deepen a relationship, or sharing raw pain are hallmarks of what vulnerability researcher Brené Brown calls floodlighting, which is using vulnerability as a form of manipulation or attention-seeking.*

An overall culture of empathy, trust, and inclusion acts as an antidote to the loneliness remote workers can experience, so investing in those aspects of your culture pays dividends for mental health, too. Empathy and compassion, in particular, are linked with greater overall emotional resilience at work.

Burnout Risks of Remote Work

Burnout is a warning sign of a toxic work environment. The response should be to focus on making the environment less toxic.Dr. Christina Maslach, burnout researcher and expert*

Christina Maslach, a social psychologist at UC Berkeley, has found that professional burnout results from a systemic combination of exhaustion, cynicism, and professional or organizational inefficacy that drive a feeling of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

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Remote workers are at particular risk if they are overworked, isolated, and struggling against communication structures optimized for an in-person team. Remote employees are also more prone to job exhaustion because of tacit pressure to ‘prove’ their contributions. In an office, as long as you are physically present, your manager and co-workers are unlikely to wonder whether you’re really working. But when someone isn’t co-located, an unproductive day can trigger fears about whether people will think they’ve been watching TV instead of working. Research shows that remote employees work a full extra day per week compared to their co-located counterparts.*

importantAvoiding burnout is not solely an employee’s responsibility. Burnout is a systemic problem that is largely driven by an organization’s culture and stressors in the work environment. It is incumbent on leadership to establish, model, and maintain a set of values and associated practices that prevent burnout in their workforce.

What Companies and Managers Can Do

Maslach shows that there are six determining risk factors for job-related burnout. The factors and tactics to deal with each are detailed in the table below.

Table: Burnout Risk Factors and Counter Measures

Burnout Risk FactorsCounter Measures
Operational workload. When the amount of work is unreasonable, people eventually become exhausted. Remote employees are more likely to work longer hours than in-office colleagues.Combat this by setting clear, reasonable expectations; providing training so employees can keep up with skill demands; making sure necessary resources are available; and enforcing reasonable work hours so remote employees can unplug and relax.
Control. Employee engagement lags when people don’t have the capacity to influence decisions that affect their work and to exercise professional autonomy. This can be exacerbated by an “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon for remote workers.You can combat this by asking remote employees for their input on the work they do and on larger company decisions, and by showing that you take action on employee feedback.
Reward. Insufficient recognition and reward (financial, institutional, and/or social) increases individual and team vulnerability to burnout, because it devalues both the work and the workers, and is closely associated with feelings of inefficacy.You’ll want to review compensation regularly to keep up with the market and/or expanding job responsibilities, ask remote teammates how they like to have successes and victories recognized, and follow through with recognition.
Community. When job-specific relationships are characterized by a lack of support and trust, and by unresolved conflict, there is a greater risk of burnout. Remote workers and their colleagues have to make conscious efforts to establish rapport and build trustworthy relationships.To counter this, you can find opportunities for disengaged employees to help others, which reduces apathy and cynicism and builds community. You’ll also want to create a psychologically safe workplace and provide mechanisms for people to connect socially via chat, forums, or other methods.
Fairness. When decisions at work are perceived as not being just and equitable, then cynicism, anger, and hostility are likely to arise as people feel they are not respected. For remote workers, a lack of direct visibility can lead to feelings of isolation and a lack of respect compared to their in-office peers.It’s imperative to communicate decisions transparently and in writing, sharing as much context and reasoning as possible. Additionally, have (and enforce) a company code of conduct and deliver performance feedback regularly and consistently.
Values mismatch. When there is a gap between individual and organizational values, employees will find themselves making a tradeoff between work they believe in and work they feel they are being forced to do, leaving them feeling unappreciated or not valued.You can screen for values in the hiring process by sharing the organization’s values clearly. You’ll want to reiterate and model the company’s values on an ongoing basis thereafter, and to make sure that severe cases of values mismatch are clearly and swiftly handled (up to firing if necessary).

Source: Holloway

importantWhen you hear your team using words like “burnout” and “stress,” don’t immediately assume that the pace of operations or sheer workload is the problem. The first step is to ask questions about whether they feel lonely, disconnected, or under-appreciated, and whether they feel that overall, their workplace is “fair.” If remote workers lack community bonds and are not near the axes of decision-making, they’re more likely to have less control over their work and lower quality social relationships—two major factors that predict burnout—even if they have the same workload as their in-office peers. Building community and ensuring that remote workers have the context to make decisions about their own work as much as possible are vital to reducing the risk of burnout.

Other concrete steps to be sure you are taking to minimize these risks:

  1. Ensuring that workers are able to unplug and set boundaries. You can recommend that people turn off at the end of their day (local time), and not check messages during dinner because a colleague just came online.

  2. Setting clear, achievable goals. Ensure that they that are realistic and, to the extent possible, make processes predictable, so that employees can commit to sustaining a meaningful life outside of work.

  3. Taking vacation days. A minimum vacation policy is especially helpful here, to encourage workers to fully recharge and reconnect with the joys that make life meaningful. Model this as a leader by taking vacation yourself, and not checking in while you are away.

  4. Having a documented team agreement. This helps ensure people don’t feel required to respond to messages at all hours of the day and night and that they have a predictable cadence of communication they can rely on.

  5. Practicing gratitude. Talking about things you are thankful for actively fights burnout. At the fully remote company Aha!, people take turns wearing a hat, while everyone else shares gratitude for that person, in a ritual that they call “hatitude.” Brian de Haff, Aha! CEO, shares that “gratitude helps us pause and recognize how important small acts of kindness are—even when we are not physically in the same building.”

  6. Checking the team’s burnout risk. Have people on your team (yourself included) take a burnout risk test, which focuses on the main risk factors for burnout.

Sharing Difficult News with Remote Teams18 minutes, 1 link

When a group of people experience the same challenges in the same physical space, human connection can form naturally, without any further effort. This connection can make dealing with bad news a little easier—the small act of looking across the room to see someone else struggling can be enormously important as a group recovers or tries to solve a big problem. Remote teams don’t have the same social outlets, the cues of “we’re all in this together” that help individuals process difficult emotions like shock, grief, uncertainty, and fear. In remote teams, each person can experience their own individual bubble of painful emotions, without the communal processing of grief that allows one to feel less alone. Managers will want to take extra care and pay attention to many subtle details when communicating challenging information.

Voluntary Departures

Voluntary departures—when someone chooses to move on to a new job on a different team or at a new company—can be sad or disappointing, but also can be a chance for the team to express its community feeling. In a remote team, the departing person should receive the same, if not more, celebration and well-wishes than you’d give for the last day of a valued in-office co-worker. It’s easy for a remote team member to just disappear as if they were never there, and the temptation can be to let this happen. We strongly recommend that you not do this; it hurts morale by making people wonder what ‘really’ happened, and by creating the feeling that the company doesn’t care if remote team members leave.

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