Future of Work Leadership team

Employee workplace burnout due to the shift from in-office to remote work.

hands cupping a yellow mug
Tracey Foulkes
Written by Tracey Foulkes

Despite flexibility and robust processes and awesome empathetic leaders (cause these do exist in many many organisations); individual employees are struggling to pivot into a new mindset that requires them to take responsibility for themselves. We’re still fighting to be the hero, confusing working hard, long and late with working smart and not taking enough time off to fully recharge. We’re burning out, but often times, we’re the ones to blame.

I am not by any means what-so-ever disputing that compromised mental health, employee overwhelm and “zoom fatigue” are important topics. They exist. I’ve experienced them. I’ve watched (and heard) my team experience them. They have become more prevalent during the pandemic. It’s a problem. I get it.

What I am disputing however, is the very real lack of individual responsibility emerging in the gazillions of blog posts that have crossed my desk over the past couple of weeks. Sensationalising burnout as a by-product of poor leadership; blaming the pandemic for workplace mental fatigue, overwhelm and anxiety. Bullshit. In spite of even the very best leadership, the pandemic, and in many many cases sublime employee experiences, I am finding that there is more at fault here. And a lot at risk.

Employees may need to take a wee inward look to see where they are part of the problem.

This is not a new problem and vomiting up the same solutions article after article is not going to do the trick of bringing about a more harmonious work environment. Fully remote, hybrid or re-imagined in person workplaces, need more than the company’s leaders to lead the charge here. A tidal wave of employee burnout, challenges driving remote work fatigue and burnout stress are just three of the titles that lead to my waking up in the early hours of the morning and thinking out loud that; no matter how fabulous, insightful, thoughtful and proactive any company may be, if the employee(s) neglect to “adult” and don’t or wont take action on any or all warning signs that things are moving off track, there is honestly little more an organisation can do. It’s concerning. 

The concept of work has had a bad rap for forever. The industrial era left an indelible mark on humans perception of work which at its core still has a far way to go before even claiming the accolade of progress.  For purposes of this post, let’s assume the eternal optimist approach that any company worth their salt, is already doing many things right.

To clarify, the basics every company should have in place:

  1. You absolutely should and must take care of your employees. Full stop. This includes regularly reviewing your full employee journey, from hiring to retiring through a consumer centric lens.  No assumptions made, get the input from your people on the ground. It might be hard, the timing might be off, perhaps they don’t have full context … but hear them out and work proactively to provide a great employee experience for them now and in the future (I’m excitedly working on our Gen-Z journey at the moment … if you have insights to share, I’m all ears).
  2. Be clear and transparent on your compensation strategy and offer fair remuneration to the best of your ability. Provide access to empathetic leadership, top notch benefits that speak to the needs of your team and allow for growth, development and flexibility. Encourage taking time off.
  3. I have never come across a single human who deliberately wants to suck at what they do (they may, but no one wants to!). So while shifting your traditional in office systems to a fully remote or hybrid version Iast year this time was an essential and swift move; this year, you should be fully reinventing systems and processes. Understand that iteration is no longer a sustainable option. Provide all the processes and tools to your team so they can do their best work.

Okay okay, that’s the 1,2,3 employers lens. But we still don’t have a solution.

Fact remains that the demand for the expertise of mental practitioners is on the rise. This must account for something right? Maybe. Maybe not. Part of me is wondering if perhaps this rise is coincidental; the result of exposure and comfort levels rising through normalising mental health (this is a good thing). Perhaps the pandemic and new ways of work provided the right dose of human empathy and acceptance,eventually allowing humans to step outside of our ego, and admit we, like you, need some help.

Stress at work can lead to overwhelm.

Overwhelm at work can lead to burnout.

Burnout at work can lead to depression.

Logic tells me that for the most part, if we take care of the stress, and minimise overwhelm, we can prevent the burnout in the first place. It sounds cold, but I’m questioning if perhaps we’re focusing entirely on the wrong thing. Emphasising a problem, without finding the root cause.

As if I needed some validation, half way through jotting my thoughts down here in this post, I took a break to meet with a customer. We were talking about Pattyrn, our product and touching on burnout and overwhelm. He was drinking a red bull at the time when he confessed that there is no way in hell he’d ever admit to his manager that he felt he had too much on his plate. That he wasn’t coping. Why not?

I then hopped onto an internal call with one of my most senior consultants. While talking about department metrics and utilisation, we casually hopped to the subject of asking for help. He brought it up. He told me that his wife; despite her over full schedule, often offered to drop what she was doing to help someone else. His colleague, despite having a migraine, not comfortable to step away from work, remained available. He described it as a culture of humans wanting nothing outside of perfection. I call it ego and a self inflicted self sabotage that in the long run doesn’t serve anyone at all.

So what do employees embracing a new way of working need to do to to stay half sane?

The blog post, medical journal answers first!

  1. Take responsibility of your new found freedom 
  2. Be disciplined 
  3. Communicate clearly
  4. Get plenty of sleep, good nutrition and exercise
  5. Read this and this and this

And now for what you likely don’t want to hear (but might need to anyway!)

Perhaps there is another factor that we’re just not owning up to that could, for some (maybe many), be the solution to all workplace stress, overwhelm and eventual burnout. The topic of “Adulting”, or perhaps more specifically the poor ability to “adult” as individuals in the work place (yes I am generalising, and yes, I am also guilty). The reality is that no matter how many awesome benefits, processes and technology you have in place, no matter the access to health care and workplace wellness and freedom to choose your office or hours; what happens if that is not enough?

What happens if the answer lies in the simplicity of SELF DISCIPLINE. The ability to act in your best interest for the greater good. The capacity to take time off, and switch off when needed. To stop feeling guilty or pressured. How about we actually say YES to offered help and NO to deadlines that can’t be met if priorities aren’t redefined. What happens if we catch this at the first signs of feeling off balance. If you simply reach for our oxygen mask and cover your nose and mouth first, before helping others. What if we take more responsibility. What if we just learn to better adult.

About the author

Tracey Foulkes

Tracey Foulkes

Hyper responsible human human. Wears heart on sleeve. Lover of food, family and belly laughs 😂 Happy to be stretched.

CPO & Cofounder at WNDYR & Pattyrn


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