When Your Home Is Your Office: Avoiding Telework Burnout
Christopher McCoy
Contributing Writer

It was 4:15 a.m. when Maria was awakened by the ding of an email. She works for a government consulting firm, and they had a proposal due to the government the next day. Maria still hadn’t finished the graphics or the management section. She staggered out of bed and onto her computer to check her email. As her hand reached for the mouse, she knocked an empty wine glass off the side of her computer desk.

In the email, Lucille, the proposal manager, fumed over a 12:00 a.m. deadline that Maria had missed just a few hours before. Maria didn’t care. Lucille’s dramatic reactions had little effect on her these days. Maria just felt too numb for them to register.

After 10 months at the firm, five of them teleworking due to COVID-19, Maria was physically and emotionally exhausted. The night before, she fell into a deep sleep when she had just wanted to lie down for 10 minutes. It was the fourth quarter of Federal government spending, and consecutive 70-work weeks as a proposal writer had taken their toll on her wellbeing.

Maria hadn’t seen her friends in person since before the COVID-19 pandemic began. It had been a lonely 10 months working first in the downtown office and then later isolated at home. Now Maria felt like Lucille, the proposal manager, and the rest of the firm had taken her hostage and tied her to the desktop computer in her own bedroom. Her head hurt constantly, and her stomach bothered her every morning. Working from home had its advantages, but overall it made Maria’s stressful job situation even more stressful.

People worked on different schedules from home, so emails, texts, and phone calls could arrive at any hour. Maria felt like she was always on call and had to respond to everyone, every time, and right away.

After each marathon video conference with members of the proposal team, Maria felt like she was still missing a lot of information. She could never quite figure out how much decision-making authority she had.

Maria’s mind drifted back to college when she had wanted to be an English professor. It bothered her that she had forgotten so much of what she had studied back then. Thoughts like this plagued Maria and distracted her from the work at hand. She would have gone for the Ph.D. in literature, she mused, if she had known that the real world would be this awful.
Maria looked up as her computer monitor flickered.

The screen had gone black from inactivity. I need some coffee, she thought to herself, otherwise, I’ll just fall back asleep. Maria stood up and made her way out of her bedroom and down to the kitchen. The kitchen floor felt sticky on her bare feet as she walked by the refrigerator. She paused and opened the refrigerator door. Maria had forgotten to cork the wine-bottle the night before. Somehow it had gotten knocked over.

Maria found it easy to drink more while confined to her home. With no one judging her and no concerns about driving it was easy to have two or three glasses of wine, rather than just one. Because of the increased proposal deadline pressures and feelings of being overworked and underappreciated, Maria was also starting to drink at home earlier every day. It was always five o’clock somewhere, she would say to herself.

The CEO Was Tuning into Employees’ Telework Struggles

Unbeknownst to Maria, Bob, the CEO, was noticing the stress on his employees and experiencing it himself. Bob had become concerned about the lack of productivity on the part of his company’s proposal writers and had been reading news articles on how the sudden forced move to telework was causing stress and burnout within many companies. He wondered if this might be part of the problem at his own company.

So, he hired Robin, an organizational development specialist with expertise in mitigating stress and building employee resilience, to help.

During their video call, Robin asked Bob about how his company was adapting to telework. The questions centered on what protocols and boundaries the company put in place to establish a healthy telework culture. Based on what she learned from Bob and a staff assessment, Robin suggested that Bob’s employees were likely suffering from chronic stress, which leads to burn-out.

Robin shared the World Health Organization’s definition of burn-out.

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • reduced professional efficacy

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.” – World Health Organization

She made several recommendations. “Bob, approaching the problem on three levels will really help improve the situation,” she said. “Changes have to take place on the organizational, managerial, and individual level. My report to you contains a roadmap to bring wellbeing back to your business.”

Robin’s recommendations included adopting a new communications policy:

  • They should agree upon and set boundaries for late-night and early-morning texts and phone calls.
  • Emails sent after core hours should be answered the following business day
  • Expectations that employees respond to phone calls at night should be eliminated.

Robin recommended that the company clearly define and communicate all employees’ roles and put mechanisms in place to make their workloads more predictable and manageable. Catering to every client’s shotgun approach to deadlines had to end.

Coaching helped the proposal writers mitigate their stress

Bob began implementing her recommendations and also agreed to have Robin provide some video coaching sessions on stress and burnout mitigation techniques to the proposal writers. The first coaching session took place with Maria a few days after she had completed the proposal she had been working on.

“Self-care is important to your wellbeing.” Robin explained to Maria. “You can’t do your job without it. Proper sleep hygiene also helps you fall asleep, if that’s part of your problem. Instead of staring at your cell phone screen in bed at night, try reading a physical book in a chair outside of your bedroom.”

“I’m usually on my computer in my bedroom,” Maria said.

“I encourage you to find a way to break that habit. Move your laptop out of your bedroom. Establish a set physical area and timeframe for work,” said Robin.

Maria found that certain activities helped her unplug from thoughts of work and future deadlines, enabling her to truly rest and renew for the next day. Studying German on a phone app stimulated her, helping to improve her mood and focus her thoughts on something other than work. Another proposal writer tried studying French.

After receiving Robin’s guidance concerning her cellphone and computer, Maria began to realize the importance of separating her office from her regular living space as much as possible. Aside from moving her desktop computer to another room, Maria also began the new habit of changing into more comfortable clothes at the end of the workday. That helped her further disconnect from work and enjoy some evening relaxation time before heading to sleep for the night.

Next, Robin had a coaching session with Lucille, the proposal manager. “Have you ever tried integrating nature into your life?” Robin asked Lucille.

“I live on a wooded lot in the suburbs,” Lucille said.

“Try getting a fish tank or hanging a bird feeder outside your window, or get a birdbath,” said Robin. “This gives you something active and visual to help occasionally shift your focus throughout the day.”

Lucille accepted the challenge and set up several bird feeders and a bird bath that she could see outside her home office and kitchen windows. Watching the birds was a visual relief from the computer screen during the workday. She even found herself going outside more in the morning and evenings to not only replenish the feeders and the bathwater, but also to just sit and enjoy the natural surroundings. This helped her to stop dwelling on her own problems and the many circumstances outside of her control in her role as proposal manager.

Other proposal writers at the firm also put what they had learned from Robin into practice. Some bought stationary bikes and exercised with personal trainers on streaming videos. Most of the writers scheduled time to take walks outside and enjoy nature. Some even started a yoga practice.

Within several months, the team was feeling much better. The wellbeing practices coupled with the revised business practices had made a substantial difference. Focus and productivity are improving, and the quality of the proposals shows it. In addition to winning more proposals, Bob has noticed the improved morale of the proposal team is affecting the rest of the company in positive ways.

He’s now rolling out the same improvement approach to other people in the business, who, like all of us, will benefit from new ways of managing their telework stress.