Beating Burnout and Loneliness in a World of Flexibility and Remote Work

Beating Burnout and Loneliness in a World of Flexibility and Remote Work

At the Harvard Business Review recently, Emma Seppala and Marissa King discussed the causes and consequences of employee burnout and pointed to a strong correlation between burnout and loneliness:

In analyzing the General Social Survey of 2016, we found that, compared with roughly 20 years ago, people are twice as likely to report that they are always exhausted. Close to 50% of people say they are often or always exhausted due to work. This is a shockingly high statistic — and it’s a 32% increase from two decades ago. What’s more, there is a significant correlation between feeling lonely and work exhaustion: The more people are exhausted, the lonelier they feel. This loneliness is not a result of social isolation, as you might think, but rather is due to the emotional exhaustion of workplace burnout. …

In fact, research has demonstrated the link between social support at work, lower rates of burnout, and greater work satisfaction and productivity. After all, the most important factor in work happiness, a UK study showed, is positive social relationships with coworkers. Workplace engagement is associated with positive social relations that involve feeling valued, supported, respected, and secure.

To help build those positive social relations, Seppala and King recommend that employers promote a culture of inclusion and empathy, encourage employees to build developmental networks, and celebrate group successes. This is easier said than done, however, especially with employees that work remotely or away from the central or corporate office, so the big question that comes to mind is how to achieve this while also having a flexible, partly or fully remote workforce.

For those employees, I can imagine that creating a workplace network is harder when you aren’t surrounded by your co-workers. I don’t think this means that flexible work should be eliminated or discouraged, as it often provides diverse employees (such as parents and those with disabilities) the opportunity to work more with fewer restrictions to their out-of-work responsibilities. However, it does mean that organizations with flexible work policies, remote workers, or even employees who travel frequently should take intentional steps to create an inclusive environment for these employees. Here are three ways companies could do this:

  1. Ensure frequent and forward looking career conversations are happening between these employees and their managers, to allow flexible employees to see what future career opportunities are available and how their current career paths can advance.
  2. Create opportunities for virtual team interactions between remote/flexible/traveling employees and their teams and managers at the more central location to build a strong community between teams.
  3. Since many flexible workers have slightly different processes for achieving their performance objectives, give these employees continuous feedback that focuses on outcomes rather than processes.

To learn more about how to ensure that flexible work is inclusive, CEB Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Council members can use our Flexible Work Toolkit.