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?

Why equitable, effective, and sustainable?

If you consume enough science fiction, you’ll eventually encounter the captain of a spaceship saying one of two things: “My first responsibility is to the mission,” or “my first responsibility is to this ship and its crew.” Both are generally true.

The point of you, as a manager, is to make sure that your team is able to do the work that your organization is setting out to do. That means that your first responsibility is to the effectiveness of your work at achieving the mission. In order to accomplish the mission effectively, you need to be able to meet the needs of the ship (the team as a whole) and crew (the individuals working on the team) assigned to the mission. Prioritizing those needs in an equitable and sustainable way gives you the best possible shot at being effective toward your mission in the long term (and if you’re here, you’re probably thinking: and is the ethically right thing to do).

#SayMoreAboutThat: What does that mean, “in an equitable way?”

The words “equity” and “equality” get kicked around in a lot of different ways, so I want to take a minute and clarify what I mean when I talk about these words in this blog. (And give a quick shoutout to Nicole Sanchez, founder of Vaya Consulting, whose Culture Accelerator workshop helped me articulate this distinction. Follow her on Twitter if you don’t already.)

Equality is the assumption that everyone on a diverse team carries the same inherent value and has the same chance to participate and be heard. (More about what I mean by “diverse teams” in a future post.) With a focus on equality, everyone has the same set of resources available to them, and everyone gets the same shot at a given opportunity. Seems like we want that, right? And we do – except that the reality is that not everyone does have the same set of resources available to them. This has become especially clear in our current shelter-in-place environment, where people have radically different physical surroundings as they work.

Equitable treatment means recognizing that not everyone on a diverse team is starting from the same place, and that some team members may need a different set of resources to achieve the desired outcome or take advantage of a given opportunity.

A quick illustration of what I mean by that: Imagine you’re my first-grade teacher. You’re noticing that you’ve got one student (me) who’s a very strong reader when there’s a book in her hand, but she can’t seem to read the blackboard as easily as the kids around her, even from the front row. She needs glasses, you realize.

A teacher focused on equality would be concerned with distributing resources equally: either no one in the class gets a pair of glasses, or every kid gets the same pair of glasses with the same prescription. Both of these options feel silly, right?

An equitable solution, on the other hand, is focused on outcomes. The desired outcome, in this case, is that everyone can engage with the material on the blackboard, from the kids who can see what’s there without any assistive devices, to me and my plastic-rimmed frames with thick klutzproof lenses, to the kid with total vision impairment who needs a non-visual way to understand the lesson.

Because you’re responsible for the effectiveness of your team at achieving your org’s mission, it’s important for you to keep your focus on those equitable outcomes so that your crew is best equipped to do their jobs. As we move through this blog, we’ll explore tools and concepts that can help drive equitable outcomes for your team – and next week, we’ll talk more about why it’s important to think about those outcomes from the perspective of sustainability.

Why are we here?

Because the world needs managers of humans in mission-driven organizations to have the expertise, skills, drive, and resources they need to manage equitable, effective, sustainable teams, and to do it remotely.

looking up through a flowering tree at a blue sky

What are we doing here?

I’m starting this blog in April of 2020, as people and organizations are starting to figure out how to run their lives in the context of shelter-in-place orders, physical distancing, and radically new and rapidly shifting sets of expectations about what work, communication, and relationships look like.

The people close to me know that in The Before Times, I was working on a book about the core values that enable equitable and effective management, and enacting those values through management practices that I’ve had success with in supporting distributed (remote) teams. I’ve heard from a number of those folks that this would be a helpful resource right now, and in the interest of getting this out there in a moment where it can be most useful to people, I’m putting the book idea on hold and will be sharing parts of my draft as blog posts over the coming weeks. I’m aiming for a new post each Tuesday.

How is this different from all those other remote-work-tips blog posts?

It’s true that there’s a LOT out there right now about remote work, being productive from home, and even managing teams remotely. My goal is to take some of those practical recommendations (plus maybe even some you haven’t already seen!) and contextualize them as part of a cohesive, strategic approach to management that can be applied while working remotely or (someday) back in an office together.

What I’ll share here will be mostly aimed at folks in mission-driven organizations: nonprofits, but also for-profit businesses where there might not be all the resources you’d want, but there is a clear sense of purpose that (in normal times, at least) guides your team’s work. This is especially for those managers who, like me several years ago, find themselves in a management role that they didn’t expect and maybe didn’t feel prepared for. Most importantly, it’s for managers who want to make sure that their day-to-day practices are grounded in a set of clear values that can benefit them and their teams in the long run.

Do you really expect us to focus on management strategy at a time like this?

In writing about remote management strategy right now, I don’t mean to imply that this is the most important concern anyone is likely to have, or that it’s even necessarily realistic to expect to plan something that happens more than two hours from now. My hope is that when you’re ready to start thinking about longer-term planning, whether that’s now or weeks or months down the line, the posts I share here will help you incorporate practices that enable equitable, effective, sustainable team building that will let your organization benefit from improved staff retention, better communication, and stronger, more resilient working relationships.

So: we didn’t think we’d be here, but I’m glad you’re along for this. Welcome. Subscribe, if you like. Contact me and let me know what feels most pressing to you right now and I’ll do my best to prioritize posts that are meeting folks’ needs. I’ll see you back here on Tuesday.