Mental Health

Unlimited PTO Failed. Here are 3 Strategies for Fighting Burnout in 2021.

May 25, 2021

Burnout is the biggest threat to remote work success. Spoiler alert: your unlimited PTO policy won't fix it. Here are three solutions that will.

Corine Tan & Annie Yan
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6 min
Burnout is the biggest threat to remote work success. Spoiler alert: your unlimited PTO policy won't fix it. Here are three solutions that will.

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If there’s one statistic from our Remote Managers 2021 Report that worries us about the success of long-term work-from-home, it’s the state of burnout. A staggering 70% of remote managers reported burnout or mental health issues during the pandemic. 


We’ve felt this. COVID-19 made remote burnout a collective experience, a familiar emptiness from overdoing Zoom, isolation, and global stressors. We make memes about being lonely and sick of Zoom, but burnout has very real health consequences. Employees who experience high levels of burnout are 63% more likely to take a sick day, 13% less confident in their performance, and 23% more likely to visit the emergency room. We’ve become numb to burnout because we’ve tied it to another pandemic experience. However, burnout has been on the rise and it’s not showing signs of slowing down.


Had this statistic come from last year’s report, we could have pointed to the shock of sudden work-from-home and city lockdowns. Instead, over a year of this new normal forces us to question whether prolonged remote work is to blame. We know perpetual isolation accelerates burnout and that the biggest problem remote managers faced this year was relationship building. If companies continue their current work-as-usual beyond the vaccine, burnout will become the new threat.


For any company considering a hybrid or fully remote future, employee wellness has become a business-threatening issue. The pressure is on to tackle this crisis and ensure remote teams have the support to work in a healthy way long-term. 


What causes employee burnout?

Many assume burnout is a matter of stress. In actuality, burnout runs much deeper than that. The Harvard Business Review lays out six causes:


  1. Overwhelming workload. Does the workload match your capacity for both work and recovery?
  2. Perceived lack of control. Is there a sense of autonomy and control over career decisions?
  3. Lack of reward. Do work's effort and time create intrinsic and extrinsic rewards?
  4. Lack of community. Are your work relationships healthy, supportive, and kind?
  5. Loss of fairness. Are individuals praised, held accountable, and judged fairly?
  6. Mismatch of values. Do the company values match your values?


The complexity of burnout and different sources of exhaustion explain why a simple day off isn’t enough to address burnout’s soul-draining exhaustion. The issue requires an individualistic approach, and it’s up to managers to provide a solution promptly.


How can managers recognize burnout remotely?

Understanding that you’re suffering from burnout requires immense self-awareness, and studies show that most of us are less self-aware than we think. As a result, many employees go weeks or months without recognizing their burnout. That’s even longer before mentioning it to their manager. To make life harder, remote managers don’t have the luxury of noticing in-person body language. The result is a long period of undetected exhaustion and disengagement until underperformance raises red flags that something’s wrong.


What are the signs of burnout at work?

Without in-person cues, it’s up to remote managers to build a sixth sense. Like any illness, burnout has a few telltale symptoms. If you notice a teammate is off, try to look for any of these changes in how they participate in Zoom meetings, message over Slack, and talk during 1:1s:

  • Chronic exhaustion. Your teammate complains of feeling tired all the time. Physical symptoms may appear as well, including headaches, stomachaches, and appetite or sleeping changes.
  • Withdrawal. Feeling overwhelmed, teammates may stop socializing and confiding in friends, family members, and co-workers. If you notice a coworker pulling back, there’s likely a larger problem at hand.
  • Talking about escape. Teammates suffering from burnout often feel they need to (but can’t) get away from work. They may use a far-off vacation as a lifeline or become manic about their habits or hobbies to cope.
  • Irritability. Frustration at burnout’s emptiness may lead to increased irritability and conflict. Look for more frequent miscommunication or frustration over Slack and Zoom.
  • Demotivation. Little things become a lot harder when you’re struggling. Normal stressors like preparing for a work meeting, driving kids to school, and tending to household tasks may start to feel insurmountable, especially when things don’t go as planned.
  • Frequent illnesses. Burnout, like other long-term stress, can lower your immune system, making you more susceptible to colds, the flu, and insomnia. Burnout can also lead to mental health concerns like depression and anxiety.


Recognize burnout early

If you recognize any of these symptoms in a coworker, try to address the issue with them as soon as possible. This conversation may be uncomfortable, but it’s crucial to come from a place of care and concern. Acknowledge the guilt that breaks bring out and that resiliency is more important than a constant grind.


Of course, these symptoms often appear in the later stages of burnout. By then, a teammate may be suffering for weeks or months. To intercept these issues early, it helps to keep a pulse on your team’s moods and create a regular dialogue on how they’re feeling. Many managers do this ad hoc, though they risk losing crucial data points that may paint a bigger picture later on. By tracking these mood trends over time, remote managers don’t have to guess as much to support employee wellness.

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Why unlimited PTO doesn’t work

Before we dive into the many solutions for burnout, we wanted to call out a common solution that does more harm than good.


A majority of tech companies have an unlimited paid time off policy. At face value, this benefit seems generous and modern. To encourage a results-oriented mindset, coworkers can take as many days off as they’d like so long as their work gets done. That should mean three-week vacations, more time with family, and fewer guilt-ridden sick days. 


Instead, folks feel discouraged to take any time off. Though counter-intuitive, this speaks to the social pressures at work. A 2020 study on 1,000 employees showed that 54% of respondents felt apprehensive to take time off for fear of falling behind. A pandemic setting with little option for leaving the house only worsens this fear: 67% of COVID-era remote workers felt pressured to be available at all hours of the day and 63% agreed that time off is generally discouraged by their employer. 


That’s the flaw of rewarding teammates solely on productivity and results; any lack thereof is seen as slacking. This creates guilt towards relaxation and self-care, forming a sinister feedback loop. Simply saying PTO is widely available won’t solve the acceleration of burnout. Managers need to create a safe culture to support teammates through their struggles.


How managers can support employees through burnout

Remote managers sit at the front lines of this issue. They’re often the first to notice burnout in a teammate and have the authority to break up many social barriers that prevent teams from using their PTO. Of course, there are many strategies a manager can do to remedy burnout beyond forcing teammates to take time off.


1. Build psychological safety

Long before burnout becomes an issue, managers should foster psychological safety with their teams. If you’ve been following our blogs, you may feel this word is getting old. As we’ve stated before, the ability to fail in front of others safely proves to be the foundation of every successful remote culture. Psychological safety goes beyond intellectual honesty, helping teammates admit when they’re struggling and support others.


For remote managers, the key to forming psychological safety on a team is modeling trust. Managers need to show that vulnerability about shortcomings and struggles will not be punished, but celebrated. Managers can’t simply say that they’re here to help, they need to step up and support teammates and model vulnerability themselves. They need to be persistent and consistent, safeguarding what’s shared and showing genuine care towards their team’s holistic lives.


We’ve written a whole blog post on how to foster psychological safety with your team. 


2. Create support groups

Loneliness breeds burnout. Isolation was one of the main causes of burnout mentioned earlier and it’s the reason why burnout is so rampant among COVID-era remote teams. Fostering tight team relationships and support networks aren’t just a nice-to-have, they’re essential for company wellness. 


Though office happy hours can help, this support requires a step further into care. Wellness is a team effort. Teammates should offer to lessen the load on others, reach out for emotional support, and listen as needed. More importantly, managers should model this care and treat every teammate as a human being.


This level of mutual care can be difficult to create without in-office pool tables or beer gardens. Remote teams need to be deliberate and interact frequently with each other. All too often, remote teams work in silos and never chat beyond collaboration sessions or meetings. They need the touch-points that you’d get in an office, the small moments that build trust over time. If you’re stuck on what that means beyond a happy hour, here are a few team-building strategies to start.


3. Encourage meaningful breaks

The failure of PTO is a problem with company culture, not a problem with breaks. When a team can foster a positive time off culture, the effects on resiliency and mental health are tremendous. Here’s what this culture takes:


  • No working during off-hours. As many of us work in kitchens and bedrooms, the line between work and life has blurred. Many remote workers struggle to set a cut-off and work far beyond the normal hours you’d see in an office. By helping teammates form boundaries on time and workload, remote managers can ensure less overworking.
  • Share when you’re taking breaks. It’s up to leadership to model a positive break culture. That means taking breaks yourself and publicly announcing when they’ll happen. We often think our roles to be mission-critical at the expense of modeling positive time-off behaviors ourselves.
  • Foster company off-days, four-day workweeks, and minimum PTO. These practices are popular at companies like Figma and Buffer. Figma frequently assigned department and company-wide off days to encourage time off (without guilt) during the pandemic. Buffer tried a four-day workweek and saw a surge in happiness without any dips in productivity. Minimum PTO is also a rising practice, helping companies set a minimum set of days that must be taken off each year.
  • Encourage quality breaks. A good rule of thumb is that quality breaks fulfill our various needs. Some breaks help fulfill social time with friends and family. Other breaks give us crucial time to recharge alone. Hold teammates accountable for taking quality breaks that fulfill them, rather than a simple day off.


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Conclusion

Burnout goes beyond job stress or career crisis. It’s a public health issue with serious physical and emotional consequences. Instead of dropping unused policies like unlimited PTO, remote managers have to get involved to ensure their people take breaks where needed. Like many health issues, prevention is key. Managers can foster a safe culture to fail, support networks, and a healthy break culture to fight this key issue.

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Meet the Author(s)

Corine Tan

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Corine is Co-Founder of Kona. She writes regularly on emotional intelligence and empathetic remote leadership. Her work has been featured by Yahoo, TechCrunch, Entrepreneur, Harvard Business School, Forbes, and more. She’s a speaker at remote work conferences like GitLab Commit 2021 and she’s advised Fortune 10 companies on remote strategy.

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