People are feeling burned out. Months of uncertainty, homeschooling and strangely hard-to-decline video calls have taken their toll. Perhaps you’ve lost your ability to focus at work, and you can’t even muster the motivation to care. Maybe you just feel really, really tired. There’s a natural impulse to blame this malaise on a very obvious aspect of the new circumstances many of us are facing: technology-enabled isolation amid a global pandemic and a barrage of heartbreaking news.
We struggle to stop rage-scrolling social media, but the news there has been so troubling that it feels wrong to look away. Nonstop video calls are exhausting, whether they are work meetings or virtual happy hours. Teleworking has its upsides, but one drawback is that it can be hard to switch off. The data show that each day, we’re working longer hours — about three hours longer — than we were before offices closed. Being separated from our bosses creates pressure to reply to messages instantaneously, to prove we’re not goofing off. Even after hours, our phones whisper about emails unread and buzz with messages from hyperactive group chats.
Most of the solutions on offer feel flimsy in comparison: Use environmental cues like clothing and location to signal to your brain when you’re working from home and when you’re simply at home. Avoid the anxiety of late-night Twitter by leaving your phone outside the bedroom. Manage the unending email deluge with any number of hacks and tips. When all else fails, take a few mindful breaths.
Somehow, such efforts don’t really feel commensurate to the moment — if they ever did. And although there’s something to be said for steps you can take without consulting anyone, the most effective changes are those you make jointly with others — your team, your boss, your family.
That was one lesson learned by the employees studied by Leslie Perlow, a professor at Harvard Business School. In her research, teams of exhausted consultants sought to regain work-life balance by ensuring that every team member could take predictable time off. To hold themselves accountable, they made that unplugged time mandatory. Working toward this goal together was ultimately what produced happier, less-burned out employees. It also improved communication between team members and resulted in higher-quality output for clients.
Collective action is the only way to re-establish healthy norms for communication technology. If your whole team spends the weekend emailing each other, it doesn’t do much good for one person to take a digital sabbath. Emails will continue to fly, and the person who opted out unilaterally will miss important decisions or be tarred as a slacker, or both.
Instead, decide as a group when everyone needs to be online and when responses aren’t expected. You should also decide on how to communicate during off hours. Checking email during your leisure time is one of those annoying habits that can suck you back into work when you need to be doing something else. So choose, collectively, to reserve email for non-timely messages and to handle emergencies over the phone. That takes the pressure off of everyone to keep checking their inboxes “just in case.”
New norms can also help during work hours. You and your team could decide to keep one day a week free of meetings and, to the extent possible, messages, so that everyone can focus on heads-down work — this is much easier to do without the pressure to respond to every email, slack or IM. Again, this solution is best adopted jointly: If you’re blocking out Fridays as a meeting-free day, but Juan chooses Mondays and Tina chooses Wednesdays, that’s obviously not going to work. Instead, agree on one (or even two!) days a week and work together to keep them clear.
Of course, these techniques can also make a difference in your social and familial communications, since we’re often using the same tech tools to talk with friends and family. If multi-hour, 10-person Zoom bonanzas are starting to wear you down, is that because of some problem inherent in Zoom, or because certain participants don’t recognize when their stream of consciousness has run its course? Either way, it’s a tech-enabled problem that can be solved through human behavior — agreeing to limit the conversation to an hour, appointing someone to “moderate” it, or bowing out of the mega-call and catching up with people one on one, over the good ol’ fashioned telephone.
Joint solutions like these emphasize that the burnout we’re experiencing isn’t our problem to solve alone – and isn’t the inevitable result of our situation or technology. It’s just how we’re wired.
“Keeping up with information” and “not wanting to disappoint people” are common human traits. A quick look back at history shows just how persistent these urges are, regardless of what technology is being used. When the printing press was invented, for example, anxiety about information overload spiked — “Is there anywhere on earth exempt from these swarms of new books?” Erasmus despaired, in 1525. We’ve long felt besieged by correspondence: In 19th century London, letters could be delivered up to 12 times daily; same-day delivery (and near-instant replies) were expected.
Working from home may feel new to many of us, but it too has a long history. In fact, as my colleague Justin Fox has pointed out, work-from-home rates are still lower than they were in the 1960s.
Always-on technology and remote work didn’t create burnout, but they can make it tougher to break free from it. When the usual barriers keeping work and other commitments in their place are gone, more human effort is required to contain them. Let that be a team effort, and it’s much more likely to succeed.- Bloomberg