A year after many companies announced their summer 2021 building reopening dates, organizations across the country are now bringing their employees back to the office — with mixed results. Some employees have enjoyed the flexibility of working from home so much that one survey of 1,000 U.S. adults found 39% would consider quitting if their employers weren't flexible about remote work moving forward, according to a poll by Morning Consult on behalf of Bloomberg News conducted in May.
This newfound autonomy among people working remotely could be key to improving work-life balance, managing mental health and reducing some symptoms of burnout, says Yu Tse Heng, a management researcher at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business.
She pinpoints burnout as showing up in one of three ways: exhaustion (a depletion of mental or physical resources), cynical detachment (a depletion of social connectedness) and a reduced sense of efficacy (a depletion of value for yourself).
With pre-pandemic office life, losing time to a commute could be exhausting for some, while dealing with office politics could cause cynical detachment. Meanwhile, workplace distractions could lead others to feel like less productive, or valuable, members of the team.
Despite the challenges of living and working through a pandemic in the last year, with the introduction of remote work, "many have benefited from more flexibility and autonomy in determining how their work day is structured," Heng says. "For example, employees could take short breaks or a power nap during the day when they felt exhausted."
However, "when employees return to the workplace, such agency is likely to be reduced, especially if supervisors are strict about work routines."
Heng says returning to a physical workplace can increase or reduce burnout, depending on the person.
For example, an employee headed back to the office could feel less cynical detachment once they're surrounded by coworkers again. But, they could also experience more exhaustion from constantly worrying about being exposed to Covid-19 or returning to more rigid office schedules.
"With these changes all happening at the same time it becomes much more tricky for employees to diagnose the burnout symptoms they are experiencing," Heng says.
Many companies increased their employee mental health offerings in the last year, from on-demand therapy to more generous time-off policies, which Heng says workers should feel empowered to make use of. With that said, she also cautions that "to be more effective in alleviating employee burnout, organizations need to reconsider aspects of the work itself instead of just trying to focus on fixing their employees."
Putting more control in the worker's hands is another key step to easing anxiety over returning to workplaces and public life in general — which are common and growing concerns, says Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi, a psychiatrist and director of behavioral health at Doctor On Demand. An employee reclaiming some of their control might want to shift their schedule to avoid high-traffic commute times, or negotiate the number of days they're in an office.
Ultimately, workers must feel agency to identify their feelings of burnout and dictate how they want to preserve their mental wellbeing.
Through her research with Kira Schabram, an assistant professor at the University of Washington, Heng found that burnout that shows up as exhaustion can be alleviated by self-care, like taking a 15-minute meditation break; detachment can be alleviated by caring for others, like asking a coworker out for coffee; and feelings of inefficacy can be alleviated by either or both forms of care.
But blanket interventions intended to help people alleviate burnout, like a mandatory team yoga session, can increase the burden on people who are already stretched thin.
Organizations should remember that "employees need to feel empowered in navigating their own recovery" and provide the flexibility and space for individuals to manage their own wellbeing. As Heng puts it, "offering employees the flexibility and tools to navigate their own recovery will definitely go a long way in helping employees protect their mental health as they head back to the office."