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Going hybrid? 3 ways to avoid employee burnout

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Alexia Cambon
Alexia Cambon is a research director in the Gartner HR practice. She works with clients to solve challenges around hybrid work design, employee experience, improving organizational culture and creating a compelling employment value proposition.

The future of work is hybrid. A Gartner survey of 227 HR leaders in mid-March reveals that only 1% of respondents expect all of their employees to work full time in the office once the pandemic ends. Hybrid work, which was once a unique employment value proposition for employers, is now a must-have for organizations.

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Author Alexia Cambon

However, Gartner research reveals 96% of HR leaders report they are increasingly concerned about employee wellbeing in a hybrid work model. More specifically, 93% of HR leaders are concerned about employee burnout.

Why? Emerging Gartner research exploring the differences between on-site and hybrid environments uncovers that several features native to the hybrid environment are driving employee fatigue and putting employee wellbeing at risk.

Specifically, employees are facing three key factors while working:

  • Digital distractions: Employees in the hybrid world are 2.54 times more likely to experience digital distractions than employees in the on-site world.
  • Virtual overload: Employees in the hybrid world are 1.12 times more likely to feel they are working too hard at their jobs than employees in the on-site world.
  • Always-on: Employees in the hybrid world are 1.27 times more likely to struggle to disconnect from work than employees in the on-site world.

Limitless Digital Distractions

Employees in a hybrid work scenario are more likely to be exposed to digital distractions, most often stemming from a natural increase in being online when employees are remote. However, this larger exposure to digital distractions puts individuals’ ability to do deep focus work in jeopardy.

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When asked to select the distractions they found most adversely impacted their ability to concentrate, hybrid employees overwhelmingly selected digital distractions as the top culprits–far more than the usual suspects we hear about in the hybrid world, like caretaking responsibilities.

Additionally, hybrid employees are more likely to suffer from consistent interruptions to their focus, which, in turn, creates fatigue. Gartner research shows employees who experience a high level of digital distractions are 1.32 times more likely to feel emotionally drained from their work.

See also: Dealing with stress is ‘no longer just a box to check’

Dizzying Virtual Exchanges

Too many virtual interactions can also create fatigue. Our research shows employers feel the need to compensate for their workforce working remotely by encouraging an increase in their virtual interactions. Yet, virtual interactions present their own set of difficulties. In virtual exchanges, it is harder to read body language and visual cues, yet turning off your camera can make it easier to disconnect from the moment, with apps and other work-related tasks just clicks away. At the same time, having your camera on can create a greater need to “perform” or have an “on-air personality.” This leads to a vicious cycle of fatigue.

According to Gartner research, hybrid employees who have seen an increase in the amount of time spent in one-on-one meetings with their peers are 1.37 times more likely to feel emotionally drained from their work. Gartner’s 2021 Hybrid Work HR Survey reveals 76% of HR leaders agree that an increase in the number of virtual touchpoints employees face in their work puts them at risk for burnout.

The Always-On Phenomenon

Working remotely makes it more difficult to set clear boundaries between work and life due to the absence of signals that tell us when to start and stop work, like the traditional commute to the office or a formal dress code. Employees are struggling to know when and how to switch off at the end of their workday. In fact, Gartner research shows 40% of hybrid or remote employees report an increase in the length of their workday in the past 12 months.

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HR leaders recognize this always-on phenomenon is contributing to employee fatigue: 92% report that increases in workday duration is putting employees at risk for burnout.

On top of this, the hybrid world also feels more monitored. Thirty-nine percent of remote workers report they worry about their organization tracking their time-spend and 36% report they sometimes pretend to work due to the expectation to be “on” at all times. Without real signals to disconnect, and in the face of worries that their time-spend is being watched, employees struggle to step out of this always-on mindset.

Readjusting the Work Model for Hybrid Work

Ironically, many of the actions that organizations are taking to improve employee experience in today’s hybrid work environment are actually exacerbating fatigue. For example, while HR leaders connect an increase in the number of virtual touchpoints to the risk of burnout, 78% have encouraged more frequent meetings between managers and their direct reports. The same goes for virtual meetings. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid adoption of remote work, 85% of HR leaders have introduced new tools for virtual meetings, which has inadvertently increased employee exposure to yet another digital distraction.

If HR is truly to blaze the trail and create a hybrid model that works, its leaders must start by examining how the hybrid environment creates new challenging realities and design work for new ways of working and collaborating. This starts by evaluating how we can minimize exposure to digital distraction, not maximize it; how we can mitigate the risk of virtual overload, not increase it; and how we can encourage employees to disconnect rather than stay always-on.