After Jacinda Ardern quit as New Zealand Prime Minister citing burnout, the “key enemy” of employees is back in the spotlight. Hybrid is one way companies can facilitate a better work-life balance, but how can business leaders adopt hybrid working in a way that keeps burnout at bay?
January 2023 saw one of the most high-profile cases of burnout we’ve seen to date, with New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announcing that she is stepping down as she “no longer has enough in the tank” to do the job. Of course, you don’t have to occupy the top job to experience burnout; it’s something that can affect anyone, whatever their role. But what is it, and how can employers best adopt hybrid working to ensure that their workers don’t fall victim to it?
What is burnout?
Burnout is defined by the WHO as an “occupational phenomenon” – a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. Burnout tends to manifest itself in a number of symptoms that employers may recognise among their workforce, such as chronic exhaustion, changes in mood and even physical symptoms, such as stress headaches.
Pre-pandemic, commuting was one of the biggest sources of stress for workers. Indeed, one university study found that adding just 20 minutes to daily commuting time could have the same negative impact on job satisfaction as taking a 19% pay cut. IWG CEO Mark Dixon described it as the “key enemy” of workers, while a survey from global staffing firm Robert Half found that 50% of US workers saw their commute as stressful. Of course, that was before COVID-19 sparked the hybrid working revolution that’s now helping workers reduce their commuting time – and with it, the likelihood of suffering burnout.
Hybrid working is the idea of working close to home, mixing office time with working from coworking spaces near to where employees live – exemplified by the concept of the 15-minute commute. It has numerous benefits for employees, not least the huge amount of time freed up when they aren’t having to battle overcrowded public transport or traffic jams getting to and from work each day. That’s a big cause of burnout eliminated straightaway.
While hybrid’s benefits to employees are indisputable, businesses need to think carefully about how to manage it in order to avoid other possible causes of burnout that can arise from this mode of working. A survey by Swinburne, discussed in this article by Forbes, suggests that good leadership is important in unlocking the full potential of hybrid – yet also highlights that around a quarter of respondents regularly work remotely despite the absence of any formal remote working policy in their company.
Illustrating the potential problems with this, a Microsoft survey found that “38% of hybrid workers say the greatest challenge of hybrid is knowing when/why to come to the office, yet only 28% of companies have created team agreements that create team norms around hybrid work.”
The result of this ad hoc approach? Employees can end up with their work-life boundaries blurred, meaning it’s harder for them to switch off from work at the end of the working day. This means more hours working or thinking about work (whether as paid employees or in additional unpaid parenting or caregiver roles), which can itself lead to burnout.
As Deloitte’s Emma Codd, quoted by Quartz, puts it, businesses who take “an ad hoc approach to hybrid work make things harder for some people – particularly caregivers.” This, she argues, can lead to uncertainty, which in turn leads to stress. For this reason, it’s incumbent on business leaders to ensure their company has a hybrid policy that makes remote working beneficial, rather than raises employees’ stress levels.
But a strong hybrid policy is only part of the equation. This must be supplemented by clear communication and leadership from those enacting the system within the company. For example, employees should feel empowered to work at the times they are most productive, rather than feel shackled by strict shift times. An open dialogue between managers and teams helps set these expectations and ensures hybrid is supported by good leadership.
What should the ideal hybrid policy look like?
A hybrid policy should reflect a watertight hybrid strategy, and above all, it should put employee wellbeing front and centre, covering points such as digital wellness (for example, the need to set boundaries around emails) and in-person meetings. Employee mental health is one of the biggest focuses for 2023, and a hybrid policy should support this.
It should address how many days a week employees are expected to be in the office, and whether any set days are mandated. It is noteworthy that, across the board and regardless of a company’s size, the HR experts IWG spoke to in its recent research agreed three was the ideal number of in-office days for employees. In terms of which days these should be, IWG’s study of its 300 flexible UK workplaces discovered that Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are employees’ preferred days to be in the office.
Guidance is important, too, as it supports the autonomy employees need to shape their own working lives. As this article puts it, “Without clear and specific guidance around hybrid work, it’s easy to see how some employees are denied the opportunity to shape their own flexible work routine and collaborate with teammates in a fulfilling way.”
Autonomy is one of the ‘personal resources’ employers can give to workers to help them avoid burnout in a hybrid situation, alongside ways of reducing fatigue. Indeed, Accenture’s Future of Work report found that employees who worked hybrid experienced less burnout, but importantly, “the most healthy and effective individuals were not those who had an absence of negative work stressors, but those who had the most positive resources.” Backing up what we’ve discussed here, these resources also include health policies and supportive leadership.
Rotman’s Future of Work report has further suggestions to add, arguing that remote work can both amplify and mitigate inequalities. The report advocates facilitating consistent communication, offering employees a range of options for flexible work to suit different needs, establishing that workers know that they don’t have to work longer hours at home, and eliminating employee monitoring.
‘Hub and spoke’
It’s clear that hybrid has much to offer in employee benefits, but to fully unlock its potential it has to be supported with strong leadership, clear communication and robust policy. A good solution for employers is to give workers access to workplaces closer to their homes, adopting the so-called hub and spoke model. This eliminates the stress associated with commuting long distances – and the isolation of working from home.
Discover how IWG can help your company beat burnout, with advice on your workplace strategy and access to 3,500 flexible workspaces worldwide.