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Dr. Leah Weiss (Facebook photo)

Leah Weiss, Ph.D., MSW, researcher, lecturer, consultant, author and enthusiastic speaker on workplace anxiety, can take a touchy subject like worker burnout and chat about it in a manner engaging enough that within minutes you feel like old friends.

Having taught in the halls of such prestigious universities as Harvard, Princeton and Smith, Weiss created the groundbreaking Compassion Cultivation Program (conceived by the Dalai Lama) at Stanford. She has taken aspects of the Dalai Lama’s teachings and brought them to Goldman Sachs, Intuit and other institutions better known for the cultivation of money than compassion.

The company Weiss co-founded, Skylyte, uses artificial-intelligence technology to improve leadership and resilience for such diverse clients as the Mayo Clinic, Genentech, Google and NASA.

The author of “How We Work: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim Your Sanity, and Embrace the Daily Grind,” Weiss spoke to Remote Report about how the past year of remote work has increased burnout, made things tougher for women and people of color and what employers and employees can do about it.

Remote Report: Do you think over the past year remote work has led to more burnout, and if so, why?

Leah Weiss: For a question like that, my first response is always, who are we talking about? What kind of role? What demographic? We know there’s a lot of data showing millions of women in this country leaving the workforce, that the situation has certainly been untenable. We know that parents are struggling disproportionately, but people who are living alone and are lonely are struggling disproportionately as well, without social connection.

RR: What do you think are the stressors that lead to burnout?

LW: One is emotional exhaustion. There’s a lack of self-advocacy. If you look at this from the perspective of team health, what builds team health is people knowing each other’s value and purpose. How to support one another, having the right amount of autonomy and flexibility, having structured rest, having community.

Things like community are very much challenged in a work-from-home environment. Autonomy can be difficult because asking for support and offering support when we have little visibility into one another’s work streams can be difficult and understanding interpersonal stressors can be more difficult remotely.

It’s harder to read cues over a video platform than when you’re sitting in a room with someone.

So, whether you’re looking at burnout or resilience factors, there’s definitely a lot of increased challenge in working from home. But there are also positives like no commute. Also, people who are extremely introverted have talked about loving the opportunity to have more time to focus on the work itself and less on social relationships.

Millions of women in this country leaving the workforce — the situation has been untenable.

RR: How has remote work affected sexism in the workplace?

LW: I already mentioned about women leaving the workforce in greater numbers during the pandemic. One factor is that there’s more than they can possibly cope with between work and family responsibilities. But it isn’t just overwork that leads them to quit. It’s also gender pay disparities.

If you’re a family and need one person to take lead on childcare because the usual options aren’t available, that person will likely be the one who’s earning less money. So things like systemic gaps in payment, according to race and gender, do factor in.

Also, with remote work, things do tend to be more transactional. There’s less time or space for chattiness. So it may be that there are fewer opportunities for microaggressions or unconscious bias to be displayed. Those come in the informal parts of interactions, but they are also systematized into how groups interact — who talks, how much, who’s listened to, who gets opportunities.

RR: Has remote work had an effect on career advancement?

LW: A lot of people are struggling with this lack of face time, feeling like their careers are stalling. Folks who already felt a little bit on the outside now feel they have less opportunity to put their hand up. There’s more of managers calling on the people they’re comfortable with and tapping them for projects. And if we’re talking about people who are more likely to be excluded, it’s more likely to be women and people of color.

We already know that women are less likely to advocate for themselves in terms of compensation or opportunities. It now may be harder to do that. Your chances for growth may be more difficult if your only opportunities are in a group where you would have to advocate for them publicly, as opposed to finding a more nuanced kind of one-on-one opportunity.

Additionally, research since the pandemic shows that the allocation of work on the home front is disproportionately falling to women. Not to make everything come back to gender, but it’s a very tangible 20 hours a week on average more for women than their male counterparts. This also makes it less possible for them to “lean in,” to quote [Facebook COO] Sheryl Sandberg. How are you going to lean in for extra professional opportunities when you’re already swamped? It’s not realistic.

Americans are notorious for not taking vacation time: That would be a big risk factor as we’re coming into summer.

RR: But wasn’t this inequality of unpaid work true before the pandemic?  

LW: Yes, the disproportion was there prior to the pandemic. The difference is the solutions that these women were relying upon: the daycare, the school, whatever they had in place. The base line of what people had all of a sudden was stripped away pretty quickly, and then the reallocation stayed disproportionate.

RR: What can employers do to alleviate burnout?

LW: Make sure managers are educated about the early signs of burnout. Be aware if someone’s workaholism is increasing and they’re changing their behaviors and acting erratically. If you can catch this earlier rather than later, it’s better not just for them as a human being, but you’re going to be less likely to have that person get to a point where they need a significant amount of time until they’re productive again.

Understand what’s going on in your employees’ lives. Have conversations about structured rest, particularly coming into vacation time. Americans are notorious for not taking vacation time: That would be a big risk factor as we’re coming into summer. Lastly, proactively build a sense of community and a sense of belonging.

RR: Is there anything that employees can do to avoid burnout?

LW: Understand where you are on the [Freudenberger] burnout spectrum and what kinds of burnout you are most at risk for. From the perspective of the individual, I think a key thing to pay attention to are mindsets — not just your own but that of your team and organization.

Is the remote work environment self-sacrificing and unsustainable? Is more friction caused because the organization is dysfunctional?

Someone can be an ER doctor in a well-run organization and work long hours and face a lot of extremely challenging things. But if he/she doesn’t have the extra friction of a dysfunctional organization that’s frustrating the doctor day in and day out, he will probably be less likely to burn out than his counterpart at the poorly run organization.

And if you’re in an organization with a culture where people are proud to say they worked all weekend or around the clock, you better be doubly vigilant about taking care of yourself because otherwise you’ll end up a frog in a pot.

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