Avoiding Burnout and Boosting Engagement With Your Remote Employees
The sustained increase in virtual work is being met with a decline in engagement levels and unsustainable employee burnout, so managers need a new skill in their managerial toolkit: remote employee engagement. To keep remote employees engaged, managers must understand the benefits and challenges of remote work and how those affect a job’s demands and resources.
Virtual Work: The Genie Isn’t Going Back in the Bottle
The workplace experienced a widescale pivot to remote and hybrid work between 2020 and 2022 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. While there has been retraction from peak-pandemic highs, organizations continue to navigate remote/hybrid work arrangements. More than one third of US jobs can be performed remotely, and many American workers want flexible work arrangements for those roles. Recent resistance to return-to-office mandates further shows that workers cherish the benefits of virtual work.
Engagement and Burnout
Renowned organizational psychologists Arnold Bakker and William Schaufeli once defined work engagement as a positive, fulfilling, work-related mindset inclusive of vigor, dedication, and absorption. By that metric, employers are failing: The most recent Gallup data on the state of the American workforce found only 32% of employees are engaged with their work, while 18% are actively disengaged. These findings reflect a 4% drop in engagement and a 4% increase in active disengagement between 2020 and 2022. In short, worker engagement is sinking from an already troubling baseline, and active disengagement is on the rise.
On the other side, occupational health researchers Christine Maslach and Michael Leiter ushered the discussion of “employee burnout” into public discourse. Their definition, largely adopted by the World Health Organization, refers to a state of weariness, pessimism and inefficacy toward one’s job. Gallup’s 2022 report revealed that three out of four employees feel burned out at the job at least sometimes, and three out of 10 always feel burned out. This is unsustainable!
A Framework for Virtual Employee Engagement
So what can managers do to improve remote employee engagement and reduce the risk of burnout? In my doctoral dissertation at the University of Southern California, I proposed a framework that all managers can leverage.
The job demands-resources (JD-R) model of burnout is a research-based framing of burnout and engagement that has spawned hundreds of studies and been applied in thousands of global organizations since first emerging in 2001. The JD-R model proposes that burnout is caused by an imbalance between job demands and job resources. I leveraged the JD-R model to develop a conceptual framework for understanding virtual employee engagement and burnout.
The Impacts of Virtual Work Benefits and Challenges on Job Demands and Resources
When managers amplify virtual work benefits and mitigate virtual work challenges, they contribute to the optimal alignment of job demands and job resources in a virtual context. In other words, they increase remote employee engagement.
This conceptual framework for virtual employee engagement and burnout, incorporating the JD-R model, suggests virtual employee engagement increases and burnout decreases when managers align job resources with job demands, leverage the benefits of virtual work and minimize remote work’s challenges.
How Managers Can Help Their People
The conceptual framework doesn’t propose three quick tips for enhancing remote employee engagement across all organizations. Instead, taking organizational nuance into account, the framework provides a tool for managers to use within their specific context, with specific team members.
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What would happen if every member of your team came to work focused on finding solutions and creating better results?
For example, perhaps a manager knows a direct report has job demands including a high workload coupled with role ambiguity, and lacks job resources including role clarity and co-worker support. The manager is also aware the employee has higher productivity when working remotely, but also experiences increased work intensification and extensification, and increased work-home conflict.
When managers don’t address these types of dynamics, a vicious cycle of problematic behaviors can spiral into remote employee burnout. In this model, burnout is not placed solely on the shoulders of the employee. Employees are not simply chided to manage their time better, meditate more, or improve their delegation skills. The model places the bulk of the responsibility on management to facilitate balance between job demands and resources, being acutely aware of how the benefits and challenges of remote work can impact that equilibrium.
The manager can discuss these related challenges during one-to-one meetings with the employee, then collaborate with the employee to develop and execute a new plan that builds a virtuous cycle of behaviors.
The manager could say something like:
“If we solidify your role on this project [role ambiguity vs role clarity], that should reduce your risk of feeling like you have to do everything [workload]. That should help you have a firmer home-office stop time in the evening [work intensification and extensification] so you can rest and spend more time with your loved ones [work-home conflict]. I’ll also touch base with a few virtual team members to let them know what you are working on and make sure you’re supported and resourced accordingly [supervisor and co-worker support]. I’ll be pinging you regularly to see how things are going and what we may need to tweak as we navigate some of the nuance of our remote dynamic.”
The framework is by no means exhaustive, but attempts to leverage and combine the academic literature on remote work, engagement, and burnout, and offer managers a resource to enhance remote employee engagement. This type of model can also inform Human Resources and HCM software professionals as they design tools and resources for remote employee engagement.
Remote employee engagement and burnout are bound to be a growing conversation in the future of work. As the distributed workforce transforms the talent landscape, successful virtual managers will appreciate the increasingly porous boundaries between work and home and facilitate work contexts and behaviors that are mutually beneficial to their team members and their organizations.
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About the Author
Stephen is an organizational leadership scholar/consultant with two decades of experience partnering with leaders in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors to align business and people objectives. His timely doctoral research at the University of Southern California explored the relationship between remote/hybrid work and employee engagement/burnout.