A hybrid work model curbs burnout, offers numerous psychological benefits
By Amy Deacon
Burnout is real. Ask around and most people are exhausted, their bandwidths maxed out, fueled by the pandemic’s fallout on top of longer work days that lack boundaries or the demarcations of commuting.
A recent survey found that the vast majority (84 per cent) of Canadian employees said they’re experiencing burnout due to workload, increased hours and staff shortages, and it continues to be the
number one reason for people taking a leave of absence.
Yet with many employers eager to get them back in the workplace and to their ‘old’ office culture, employees aren’t receptive to a mandated decree to return. Making the shift back to the office is about much more than just a physical change of activity, it’s another upheaval of lifestyle and mindset that – perhaps born of fear – has morphed into a preferred ‘new normal’ for many. After dealing with significant pandemic challenges that continue to linger, a return to the workplace can feel like another demand that employees don’t have the capacity for.
The impact of isolation
While a full-time return to the workplace is no longer an ideal or even practical solution, fully remote work can also have drawbacks. The sudden social isolation of lockdowns had a drastic impact on everyone, and served to exacerbate an epidemic of loneliness that was already brewing pre-Covid.
While some of us were better able to tolerate solitude, the extended isolation, fed by a constant negative news cycle, led to anxiety and division in society made worse by a toxic ‘cancel’ culture and the lost art of respectfully agreeing to disagree.
A return to work is also a return to society, to constructive conversations, to relationships and socialization beyond our immediate circles. Although work colleagues don’t always fall into the category of one’s primary social group, the interactions and discussions that take place in the office form an important part of one’s sense of connection and belonging, helping to keep our social skills oiled. Yet change is difficult, and after more than a two year absence from the workplace and in-person interactions, many are struggling with the return, and employers are cautioned to handle it with care.
Going hybrid offers a win-win scenario
As a mental health professional, I believe the successful approach to a workplace return is a mutually agreed-upon hybrid model, which creates a powerful win-win scenario with several advantages for both staff and employers. Evidence shows that employees tend to be more productive while they are working from home, making this a plus for staff who crave flexibility and autonomy, as well as businesses who benefit from the increased output. However, as early research is indicating, those who work entirely remotely are at the highest risk of burnout as they are more likely to work longer hours, have less emotional support, and experience more isolation in comparison to their in-office counterparts.
A hybrid model could help buffer staff who work remotely from experiencing further burnout.
Going hybrid also accounts for diversity of people, offering a ‘best-of-both worlds’ advantage. Introverts who are more likely to enjoy working from home benefit from more autonomy balanced with regular socialization, while those who are more extroverted get their fix from the in-person camaraderie of the office.
Strengthening social skills is important and while not everyone may love it, much like eating broccoli, it’s good for us.
Strong relationships are essential to our overall health and wellness, and learning to communicate with people who share different perspectives and different opinions is critical for the integrity of our social fabric.
How to handle the transition and mitigate burnout
The caveat to a hybrid work model is that, if not properly executed, it can create inequalities and lead to divisiveness. Building a strong hybrid culture with inclusivity and equal opportunity is critical, as is using effective listening to take the right actions.
As all expert communicators will attest, how you listen is much more important than what you say. The successful switch to a hybrid work model requires a thoughtful, considered approach. As leaders, this starts with challenging our assumptions, asking some direct questions, and possibly reviewing our own priorities. Why are we convinced that we need people back in the office? What are ways that we can be flexible in the implementation of our return to work policy?
Can we ask staff to start with 1-2 days a week and then evaluate this model before insisting on 3 days? Do we really even need more than that?
Next, it’s important to be in touch with how employees are truly feeling. While many employers have already conducted extensive surveys, the information won’t be helpful if we haven’t asked the right questions. Only with a deep understanding of their greatest sources of stress can we determine the best solutions. Are they reporting burnout, or feeling overworked? With a shortage of staff and resources, how can we clarify priorities to ensure we adequately manage the expectations placed upon them?
Be sincere about considering their input. This is not simply a box to check off or one-and-done exercise; continue to survey periodically to know whether interventions are actually helpful, or if a pivot is required.
Burnout from overwork is not something easily solved by throwing someone a bonus or increasing their health benefits. After meeting with executive teams and working with their staff, across dozens of organizations of various sizes and industries, the common denominator among people is that they want more work-life balance, which has now been redefined. Career is important, but people don’t want to be defined by it. What’s more important is that they have time, space and availability to live their actual, personal lives too, with more time for friends and family, and an ability to care for their mental and physical health.
Quiet quitting and the great resignation are reactions to an unsustainable work experience where burnout is rampant. They are also a stark reminder that the quality of our work is dependent on the quality of our workers – and their mental health. Ignore this at your peril.
Amy Deacon is the Founder of Toronto Wellness Counselling. For the past decade, Amy has specialized in providing treatment for mood disorders, trauma and navigating major life transitions. She has a wealth of experience that ranges from working with top business executives to veterans and everyone in between. Amy is passionate about helping people live their most empowered, healthy lives.
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