Recently a friend of mine, a great proponent of working from home, (WFH for the initiated) stepped down from his job as CEO because of exhaustion and burnout and a need to recalibrate his life. Within a week I learned of several others who have done the same, or are planning to do so soon. Some of them are well-known for advocating remote work. What happened to “working from home would relieve a lot of the burnout and stress of commuting and going to an office every day?”
Were we wrong?
Does this mean that they were wrong about the potential of flexible and remote work to help you get control of your life? Maybe it means that those who insisted on getting back to normal as quickly as possible were right?
Not so fast. Here are a few hard truths to consider when thinking about remote work and stress or burnout:
- WHERE you work is less important than HOW you work.
- Work/life balance is about time choices, not location
- Most burnout and stress are self-inflicted damage
That first bullet is really important. Yes, working from home has a lot of obvious advantages. The lack of a commute may mean more time in your day you can allocate elsewhere. There are certainly cost savings to no longer driving, parking, or getting on a train every day. Being at or close to home means potentially more time spent with family or on yourself.
Time is made up of choices
Kevin Eikenberry is famous for saying “There’s no such thing as time management. It’s actually choice management.” He’s not wrong. We make more choices than we think—even if we don’t think of them as choices.
Being in the same house as your children doesn’t mean you’re having family time. If you are skipping meals for conference calls, or more worried about keeping the little monsters quiet while you work, it’s hard to say you’re spending quality time. In fact, trying to do all the things you “should” and be a high performer at work may simply change one kind of stressful work for another, with no time for rest or letting your brain relax.
Some people will always work harder and put more pressure on themselves to excel than others. For many it’s a badge of honor, or the way they’ve achieved their position or career. That’s not necessarily a problem—there’s no exact formula for how many hours equals what results. What is problematic is our inability to listen to our brains our bodies and the people who love us and set reasonable limits.
Establishing our own boundaries
At least when we were “going into work,” there were social and physical guardrails that kept us on track. Offices had specific hours they were open and closed. Your peers would occasionally get on you for working too much, or create opportunities for fun and social interaction. When we are left to our own devices, we don’t always replace those cues and rules for behavior with others.
Work/life balance is always going to differ person to person, job to job, and role to role. It will mean one thing to you as an ambitious 30-something, and something completely different to me as an empty nester who isn’t looking to climb the ladder. It’s your choice, but choose wisely.
That ability to choose is precisely the problem. We often sabotage our own energy. We call it “being a good teammate,” or “taking one for the team,” or a lot of other things. Some of that is peer pressure or explicit expectations from our employers… after all you can’t balance work and personal life if you don’t have a job. But most of the mental stress and work choices that truly burn people out are self-imposed. Always being on the clock. Being addicted to our devices.
Why leaders are especially at risk for burnout
Leaders in particular are prone to burnout because they take their role so seriously and assume more responsibility than perhaps is healthy. In an effort to model good team skills, ease the load of some of their team members, and live up to organization commitments (which often involve time zone, travel and other challenges that play havoc with our schedules) we stretch ourselves past our physical and mental limits. In the short term, this is no big deal and actually gives us an adrenaline or dopamine rush. In the long term, it’s unsustainable.
The situation is even worse for entrepreneurs. Many people work in a “you don’t work, you don’t eat,” world. We don’t stop to think that working fewer hours, but focusing our efforts on being more productive during that time will have much healthier results.
Working from home CAN help with our stress level and mental health. But only if we CHOOSE to work in healthy ways. Chained to a desk is a problem, even if that desk is in our homes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.