Beware burnout: the risks of home working

Nikki Fuchs

Guest post by Niki Fuchs

Businesses evaluating potential work strategies for the return to the workplace face difficult choices. While organisations have adapted to new ways of working in Lockdown, employers cannot overlook the fact that permanent home working carries risks which could impact negatively on the health of their workers as well as the health of the business.

While countries such as France and Ireland have introduced measures to protect home workers’ work-life balance, many in the UK have suffered from being “always on” during Lockdown. Indeed, home workers did an average of six hours’ unpaid overtime each week in 2020, almost twice as much as those who did not work from home.1

Returning to the office in some capacity, therefore, is a critical measure to re-establishing boundaries between work and home. If businesses are to reduce the risk of UK workers – and the businesses for which they work – suffering an epidemic of burnout in the wake of the pandemic we cannot overlook the importance of the office.

False flexibility

Rather than risking workers’ work/life balance worsening by only offering the option to work from home full-time, employers should instead consider the settings and workstyles which can bring out the best in their teams. Opening up two-way discussions about this with employees can, in turn, help to generate the best outcomes for a business as well as its workforce.

Full-time working from home has not provided the boost to our work/life balance first thought when we went into lockdown in March 2020. A recent survey conducted by Office Space in Town (OSiT) found that the majority of those who had been working from home rejected the idea that this change had prompted an improvement in their work/life balance. Moreover, 37% cited the difficulty of switching off from work while working from home – in effect, for many it has felt more like living at work.

A bout of burnout among workers could prove detrimental to business performance as well as being harmful for individuals

Implementing full-time home working on a permanent basis therefore only offers workers false flexibility, in contrast to the greater freedom enjoyed by employees able to choose where to work. By empowering workers with the tools to organise work around other commitments such as childcare, hybrid workstyles would enable them to restore real balance to their lives, reducing the risk of burnout and, in turn, leaving them happier, healthier and best able to perform in their role.

The right kind of contact

As well as giving employees a choice of where to work, businesses should ensure that their attempts to keep in contact with increasingly footloose workers do not result in the latter feeling obliged to be available for work 24/7. While the Mental Health Foundation has advised bosses to stay in daily

contact with employees,2 we need to address the wealth of anecdotal evidence suggesting that many workers do in fact feel under pressure to respond to out-of-hours communication.3

Ensuring that everyone enjoys the peace of mind they deserve at the end of a hard day’s work, it is again a matter of reintroducing the clearer distinction between work and home life from which many people would benefit. Many workers even value the much-maligned commute as an opportunity to take a breath either side of the working day, providing a tangible break between work and home life which simply cannot exist when the two take place in the same few rooms.

High morale = high productivity

A bout of burnout among workers could prove detrimental to business performance as well as being harmful for individuals themselves, with happy, healthy workers in a far better position to get the job done. Indeed, recent research has highlighted the close link between morale and productivity, so businesses reluctant to take workers’ wellbeing into consideration are actually adopting a seriously short-term strategy.

Permanent home working is an unsustainable long-term solution for businesses

Suffering from burnout increases workers’ susceptibility to other issues with their mental and physical health, resulting in losses to businesses in the form of sick days which would otherwise have been avoidable, as well as reduced productivity caused by presenteeism, as burned-out employees feel obliged to log on despite desperately needing the day off to recover.

Reluctant remote working

In light of all this, it is perhaps unsurprising that only 5% of workers want to work remotely full-time on a permanent basis.5 Work strategies which offer inadequate office provision will therefore create increasingly disillusioned workers who will soon look to take their talent elsewhere.

This is a very real risk, particularly given the extent to which younger workers value the office as a scene of socialising and professional development. With 68% of workers who changed jobs in 2018 doing so due to a lack of learning opportunities in their previous roles, businesses risk losing out on top talent if they impose full-time home working on a permanent basis. Having a dedicated place to work, and to engage in all the activities which surround it, is vital for workers’ sense of satisfaction in their jobs, so employees should make sure to provide one.

Beware burnout

Permanent home working is an unsustainable long-term solution for businesses, and they should therefore think twice before devising their post-pandemic work strategies without their employees in mind. Workers’ health and happiness will suffer from the burnout which will inevitably arise as the boundary between work and home life becomes blurred. Moreover, businesses themselves will suffer if they fail to keep abreast of workers’ needs, losing out on the productivity and talent development which the workplace is uniquely equipped to provide.

Niki Fuchs is Managing Director of OSiT