How to spot burnout on your distributed team

Spot and address the warning signs of remote team burnout.

As remote work becomes more widespread, so have some of its challenges. As a result, the post-pandemic remote workplace has had to switch focus from sharing productivity hacks to having emotionally vulnerable conversations about mental health. 

Burnout has been a growing issue for a number of years, but it’s clear that the pandemic has exacerbated the situation. In a survey of 1,500 employees, 75% reported they had experienced burnout at work, with 40% saying they experienced burnout specifically during the pandemic.

Here’s how you can spot the signs and what action you can take to save your team from burnout.

Why burnout affects remote teams more

Burnout seems to be prevalent amongst remote workers, especially managers. In a survey of 350 remote managers, 63% of respondents said they had experienced burnout or mental health issues.

Contributing factors include the sometimes isolating nature of remote work and managers’ difficulty creating meaningful conversations and a genuine sense of connection between teams. Managing a distributed team in multiple time zones is still a relatively new process, and managers are still learning how to do it right.

It’s hard forming and maintaining relationships with your team through sporatic Zoom hangouts. Celine Grey, Director of Revenue Acceleration at Oyster, notes, “As a fully distributed team, we have fewer opportunities for small chats and unplanned social moments.”

What burnout looks like in a recession

The rising cost of living paired with a widening gap between productivity and wages has created long-term employee discontent, which can lead to burnout. The last two years have been stressful and scary, straining workers’ coping skills and overfilling their mental load.

People look for financial security in times of uncertainty. Few companies have retention budgets, but most have hiring budgets, which adds more incentive to walk out than to stay. Since switching jobs is the easiest way to get a raise, many employees are choosing to do so.

How to spot early signs of burnout

When you’re trying to catch burnout early, you’re looking for signs of:

  1. Fatigue. It’s not normal to always be tired. Your team may either be overwhelmed with tasks or not getting enough sleep, both of which are burnout red flags.

  2. Cynicism. When an employee that used to be on board and enthusiastic has a negative outlook on everything, it’s time to act. Don’t condemn them, listen to them. Chances are other employees are complaining about the same things too.

  3. Lower productivity. Burnout severely reduces your team’s mental load, impacting their ability to take on new projects and execute existing ones. 

But how do you catch these signs on a distributed team when you don’t see people every day?

Burnout is a mental health issue and mental health is complex and internal, so it’s hard to judge what’s happening from the outside. This is especially true if your employees don’t feel comfortable talking about mental health in the workplace. 

Creating a culture that fosters emotional vulnerability in a remote setting is a challenge, but Oyster is leading the way. With a jump from 17 employees to 600 in a year, they were very aware of the burnout risks that come with this kind of rapid growth.

In fact, 84% of Oyster’s employees feel comfortable sharing when they’re not doing well. 

How did the team achieve this? They used Kona, a Slack app that asks your remote team how they’re feeling every day. The mood data is compiled and visualized in charts managers can review to catch early signs of burnout.

"We encourage transparency and critical conversations at all levels. With Kona, our team members share their feelings openly—even our more introverted team members—and they get full support from other team members in return. It is helping us create deeper connections and understanding," explains Grey.

How managers can treat burnout (spoiler: it's not just PTO) 

Prompting employees to take PTO doesn’t address the causes of burnout, it just postpones the inevitable. The second they get back to work, they’ll be stressed again.

Like most chronic issues, burnout is easier to prevent than to treat. It can take years to recover from burnout, so catching early signs of it is key. Your managers should be trained in preventing, spotting, and treating burnout to be able to tackle it successfully. 

Improving team relationships to fight isolation

Remote work can be isolating. It’s too easy not to leave your house for days, which means some people’s only social interactions are those at work. Buffer has run the State of Remote Work survey for many years, and loneliness remains one of the top struggles people have with working remotely. It’s consistently a challenge. 

Companies often try to solve this by trying to shoehorn in virtual replacements for everything they used to do in the office. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work. Occasional Zoom hangouts don’t foster emotional vulnerability. Nobody wants to be a Debby Downer and kill the mood by opening up about their mental health struggles in a virtual group hang.

Empathy happens in a safe space. Building a habit of checking in on your own feelings when working remotely is how you stay on top of your own burnout. Supporting and celebrating your teammates is how you help them prevent theirs.

Through Kona, there are three ways to check in: green, which means great, yellow is meh, and red is horrible. Managers get alerts about red check-ins so they can act, as well as predictive burnout warnings based on check-in data.

Coaching managers is pivotal 

Burnout comes with many negative impacts for a team. It is not only detrimental to the individual who experiences it, but it can have detrimental effects on the entire organization. A single burnt-out employee can lower morale, slow productivity, and increase the workload of everyone else when they quit.

Since remote workers are more likely to burn out, spotting burnout is an essential skill remote managers should possess. It takes a trained eye, and managers need to be provided with that training. Give them diagnostic questions to ask during 1:1s, questions to include in large-scope surveys, and teach them to practice empathy as a habit. Kona is also a great tool for that.

David 'DJ' Oragui, Director of Strategic Projects & GTM at Oyster, says, “​I love the fact that Kona just enables me, as a manager, to be in touch with my team, helping them feel more welcome in the workplace; ultimately, bringing their whole self to work—fostering psychological safety.” 

Attractive, up-to-date benefits

If you’ve had the same benefits in place for five years, chances are other employers are offering more. Talent is hard to find and even harder to keep, so companies are trying to outdo each other in creating the perfect work environment. In a remote setting, that means benefits.

Yesterday's benefits are quickly becoming today’s standards and tomorrow’s red flags. Offering a company laptop might have been exciting in the 90s, but listing it as a benefit and not a standard now is borderline offensive.

The one thing we hope will become standard is employee mental health and wellbeing benefits. Things like free therapy, mental health PTO, and Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) will not only keep talent from leaving but also directly address burnout at its root

Prevent burnout at your remote-first company

Burnout is a serious problem for remote companies. We live in a stressful time where everyone is struggling to keep up with life and work. If you want to shield your teams from burnout, you need to take care of them emotionally.

Managers need training in order to recognize early signs of burnout, your company culture needs to be people-first, and your employees need to have the means to check on their mental health—the same way they do with their physical health.

Tools like Oyster and Kona add time to your managers’ day by automating the seemingly unautomatable—the human aspect of work.

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