Recognizing remote overwork and burnout

A joshua tree is growing bent over sideways in the foreground of a desert landscape.

Like most managers, I’ve spent time staring down some major burnout. At one point, I was directly managing 15 people who worked shifts that covered more than 100 hours per week. I felt that in order to be a good manager, I needed to be available to everyone at all times… but that wasn’t translating the way I expected. I was working all the time, but we weren’t meeting our goals by just about any metric. I knew I needed to make some significant changes to the way the team and I operated, if we were all going to continue doing this work for much longer.

I wasn’t alone in struggling to find the right balance of what to work on, when, and how much. There are those who insist that nothing can be accomplished in less than 80 hours per week; others posit that you only get a few hours of productive time per day and it’s pointless for knowledge workers to spend more than that trying to get things done. In our current environment of shelter-in-place orders, there are even more variables at play: who has to spend their time caring for kids or other loved ones? Who is navigating personal grief? Who has to manage deep anxiety without the in-person help of their usual therapist? How, and when, does the attention required for work fight through the ambient stress of one’s household and the internet?

Often, those extolling the virtues of long hours (or, now, turning quarantine into an opportunity to build a side hustle) have viewed that time as a proxy for dedication and commitment. Dedication and commitment are, in turn, considered morally virtuous. This is a trap that mission-driven organizations are especially prone to: look at all the time I dedicated to the cause, all the sacrifices I made, often for little or no money! I must be a good person. In fact, I must be a better person than my colleague who stopped working at 5 sharp every day.

It sounds absurd when I put it that way, but many of us have felt it; it’s often easy to see when other people have fallen into the overwork trap, but it’s harder to identify from inside.

How do we know if we’re in the trap?

Think about what this looks like when you see it in your friends: In work that involves communication – whether that’s writing grants, creating marketing copy, or answering customer service questions – we can see others start to lose the cohesiveness of their thoughts when they’re overworked. We can see others tend to lose empathy when they’re tired or hungry, and how that makes it harder to connect with the people they work with, which in turn makes them less effective and can even damage their relationships. In work that requires attention to detail, we can see when someone’s pushing past the point where focus comes easily, and we anticipate how much extra work they’re about to create for themselves.

In remote environments, it becomes even more critical to be able to identify these red flags in yourself – you can’t rely on your colleagues seeing it in your face or your posture. It’s a lot easier to dismiss each other’s effort, assume ill intent, or simply ignore each other when we aren’t physically present together. Identifying the signs that we’re in the trap becomes essential to maintaining the team’s trust in the long term.

Okay, so then how do we get out?

Pulling ourselves out of the overwork trap isn’t easy. When we’ve connected the idea of our value as a person to the idea that we spend most of our waking hours “working,” reducing that working time can carry a lot of guilt. Back when I was managing that 15-person team, I had to be able to see for myself that the work I produced in fewer hours – with a focus on outcomes, not inputs – was better and more useful than what I was doing before. It wasn’t until then I was able to shake the sense that I “should” be working in a moment when I knew I wasn’t focused enough. It took me too long to recognize that by simply trying to be available all the time, I was preventing myself from giving my team my best at any time.

To get out of that pattern, I had to make it my job to ensure that they would have the resources they needed to keep things running smoothly if I shut off my phone to watch a movie or cook a nice dinner with a friend, if (in the Before Times) I went camping in the mountains for a weekend, or even took (gasp) an actual vacation. I had to come to terms with the fact that if my team struggled when they were on their own, the thing standing in their way wasn’t my lack of constant availability, but a lack of clarity in how they were supposed to be doing their jobs – and creating that clarity was my responsibility. Providing more of that clarity, in the form of documentation, clear evaluation rubrics, and structures for improvement, removed the whole system’s apparent reliance on one key node (me) and made it a much more sustainable operation in general. In future posts we’ll go deeper into what it looks like to create clarity for your team; for right now, let’s just do a quick check: are you hydrated?

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