OHS Canada Magazine

Burnout and isolation: Why employees and managers can’t ignore the social, mental health impact of working from home


October 24, 2022
By The Conversation

Human Resources burnout Mental Health Stress Working From Home

(Andrii Zastrozhnov/Adobe Stock)

By Kiffer George Card, Assistant Professor in Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University

The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred on a variety of workplace maladies, including “the great resignation,” “quiet quitting,” “overemployment,” labour shortages and conflicts between managers and employees over returning to in-person work.

Employee burnout and well-being may be at the heart of several of these issues.

Two new studies highlight the importance of social connection in the workplace and illustrate why working from home may not be the optimal workplace arrangement. Hybrid work-from-home schedules may help prevent burnout and improve mental health.

So, what is burnout?

The International Classification of Diseases describes burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

As a diagnosable condition, burnout consists of three symptoms:

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  • physical exhaustion,
  • disengagement with work and colleagues, and
  • cynicism for one’s job and career.

For many who have experienced burnout, it can feel just like the metaphor that describes it: something akin to a burnt-up shriveled match stick, cold to the touch.

What causes burnout and how can it be stopped?

According to global research, approximately 50 per cent of employees and 53 per cent of managers are burnt out in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Workplaces are clearly not thriving.

As a social epidemiologist studying contemporary emotional distress within the context of public health crises, I’ve been keen to understand what factors contribute to burnout and how it can be successfully managed — particularly given the ongoing challenges created by COVID-19.

You might think researchers would know everything there is to know about burnout at this point. After all, burnout has been studied since at least the late 1970s. Many of the studies conducted since then have focused on workplace conditions, such as pay, hours, management styles and the nebulous “workplace culture.”

As such, management of burnout has often focused on reshaping work environments and reforming bad managers. While these are of course necessary, it’s not immediately clear that they’re enough.

With the emergence of the pandemic, many people have new levels of awareness of the impossibility of severing work from life. For some, that awareness comes from how tired they are when they get home from a shift. For others working from home, it may come from the disappearing divide between home and office.

In any case, our emotional and psychological well-being is with us whether we’re at work or at home. As such, it makes sense that we take a holistic view of burnout. Social connection is a key driver of burnout.

The social costs and benefits of working from home

In a recent study by my lab at Simon Fraser University, we sought to identify the most important risk factors for burnout. We looked at a range of variables, including the classic factors of workload, satisfaction with pay, dignity in the workplace, control over one’s work, and pay adequacy, as well as more novel variables such as home ownership, an array of demographic factors, social support and loneliness.

In conducting this study, we found that loneliness and lack of social support come out as leading contributors to burnout, perhaps just as important — if not moreso — than physical health and financial security. In summary, the study contributes to a growing understanding of burnout as a social problem driven by isolation.

One potential and evolving source of isolation is the emerging trend of working from home. As many people have had the privilege to learn, there are many benefits of working from home. It enables people to save time on their commutes and have more freedom to get chores done around the house or take a quick nap on their breaks. This means they have more time and energy for friends and family at the end of the day.

On the other hand, working from home means losing out on those water cooler conversations and casual collisions with coworkers _ which have a surprisingly profound impact on well-being. Furthermore, considering how important workplaces and schools are for finding and building friendships, a loss of these spaces could have serious long-term consequences for people’s social health _ especially if the time spent with others at work is now spent at home alone.

The importance of social connection to health and happiness

To understand the impacts of working from home on mental health, my team conducted a second study to look at differences in self-rated mental health across individuals who work only from home, only in person, or who worked partially in-person and partially at home. We controlled for potentially important factors such as income, hours of work, occupation, age, gender, and ethnicity.

Our results showed that 54 per cent of those who worked only in person and 63 per cent of those who worked only at home reported good or excellent mental health. From these results, you might conclude that working from home is best for mental health — a finding contrary to a growing number of studies that highlight the disadvantages and challenges of working from home.

However, there’s a catch: a whopping 87 per cent of those who reported a hybrid work arrangement — meaning they worked partially in-person and partially at home — had good or excellent mental health.

While the type of work done at home and in-person certainly shapes these trends, our findings nevertheless point to the possibility that hybrid work might give employees the best of both worlds — especially within the context of our first study, which highlighted the importance of social connection to workplace well-being. Indeed, hybrid work arrangements may allow employees to maintain those positive connections with colleagues while also providing a better balance between work and life. It really may be the best of both worlds — at least for those who can work this way.

As employees and employers continue to adapt to the new normal in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our research provides a strong reminder for us to all remember the importance of social connection. It’s all too easy to forget that strong social relationships and communities are the foundation of health and happiness within and outside the workplace.

Kiffer George Card receives funding from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the Canadian Research Coordinating Committee, Michael Smith Health Research BC, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. He is affiliated with Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Health Sciences, The Pacific Institute on Pathogens, Pandemics and Society, The Institute for Social Connection, The Community-based Research Centre, the GenWell Project, The Island Sexual Health Society, and the Mental Health and Climate Change Alliance.

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