A year after working from home became the new normal, the experience is taking a toll on some workers — mentally and physically.
First, there is “Zoom fatigue,” named after the online video meetings many employees are frequently required to attend.
According to a 2021 report by Old Dominion University, numerous online meetings harm well-being, as they “are more fatiguing than in-person meetings because of increased sustained attention.”
Then there is general “remote fatigue” — simply feeling drained from working at home alone.
“Remote fatigue involves feeling very demotivated when it comes to the workday, which can take many shapes beyond Zoom fatigue,” said Lilian Chen, co-founder and chief operating officer at virtual game provider Bar None Games.
“Sometimes, this means feeling withdrawn from work colleagues and communicating less with your co-workers, whether about professional items or personal interests,” she said. “Other times, it manifests in feeling a draining of energy when entering your remote work setting, which makes it very hard to look forward to the workday.”
Increasing camaraderie, team trust
A survey by Virtira management consultants of more than 1,700 remote workers found that almost half are exhausted from working at home. About 61 percent said all their meetings are on video, and 60 percent said they have had more meetings during the pandemic than before. More than a quarter said they felt peer pressure to turn on their web cameras on video calls even if it was not required.
One reason for video-meeting fatigue is that workers are forced to look everyone in the eye for a prolonged period of time, according to a 2021 a study published in Technology, Mind and Behavior. In addition, employees struggle with the lack of body language cues that are vital for communicating, they can’t have side conversations and they can’t step away from the screen, the study said.
One of the largest challenges that organizations face with remote workers is a deterioration of motivation, trust and employee morale. This is especially true for companies that previously were in the office together, according to Chen of Bar None Games.
It’s important for managers to find creative and fun ways to build camaraderie and increase trust amongst team members in order to facilitate collaboration, she added.
“Zoom happy hours no longer work after the seventh one,” Chen said.
Kristen Mashburn, a Nashville, Tennessee-based company culture consultant, said her clients have taken several steps to combat remote fatigue.
These include “no camera Mondays” for video-conference meetings.
“This helps reduce the fatigue of staring at all the different faces,” Mashburn said.
They also have “Slack-outs,” when they silence their project-management platform during nights and weekends.
The importance of routines
Removing e-mail capabilities, or at least alerts, from phones can also help people turn off work, providing a separation of work and home life that can alleviate work-from-home fatigue, according to Mashburn.
“This helps employees work only when they are sitting at their computer instead of every time their phone chirps,” she said.
Mashburn also suggests that workers create morning and evening routines that include going for a walk before the workday begins and cleaning their desk areas or powering down devices at the end of the day.
Kristen King, director of digital strategy at public-health consulting firm Advocates for Human Potential , suggests organizations should alternate on-camera and audio-only meetings to help with fatigue. She has worked remotely for 15 years, including the last 11 years for the mostly on-site company.
King recommends encouraging staff to call their co-workers instead of sending e-mail or using online chat platforms. Motivating employees to get away from their desks and schedule shorter meetings also can help curb remote fatigue, she said.
Workers should get out of their home at least once a day, “even if it’s just walking to the corner and back,” she said.
When King’s entire company went remote during the pandemic, the organization started online team lunches, with meals paid for by the company.
They also started holding smaller meetings with brain-storming exercises, presentations, small group activities or games related to work, she added.
In addition, company leaders communicate via e-mail about the return-to-office plan, and the monthly corporate newsletter includes lighthearted, staff-written content.
“Staff participating in these activities report feeling more connected and less burned out or fatigued by remote work,” King said. “They also notice some positives to working remotely, like opportunities to connect more with staff whom they normally wouldn’t if they’re not located in the same office.”
Support is key to employee retention
Organizations also need to recognize that lack of support for remote fatigue may spur employees to start looking for work elsewhere. Guiding them to find solutions will help businesses retain valuable talent, experts say.
“Companies need to make sure that they are supporting their employees in every way possible to make the transition [to remote work] easier,” said Chen of Bar None Games. “This means creating an open and honest space for employees to feel comfortable speaking up if they are struggling, having a culture where it is encouraged to take personal time as needed to overcome the remote fatigue and creating resources for employees when they need help.”
In addition, businesses can support staffers by providing mental health resources, a financial budget for a work-from-home setup and a calendar of virtual social events — and checking in on them regularly.
Another solution is to suggest co-working space rentals for employees, which can help with the social hardships of telecommuting, said Mashburn, the company culture consultant.
“Remote work is extremely hard, and it is a major transition to go from in-person work to remote work,” Chen added. “This difficulty is compounded by the fact that many companies and managers are also experiencing the transition to remote work for the first time and may not have the resources or systems to support remote workers in the best manner.”