The change began about a year ago. I had just cooked my Thanksgiving turkey. I took up smoking meat as a hobby in the first year of the pandemic, but I couldn’t really taste much that day. I couldn’t smell anything later that night. Soon I was quarantined in a room in our home. For 11 days my wonderful, patient wife brought bottles of Pedialyte to my home. I was scared. I had pain. My internal temperature fluctuated between freezing cold and scalding hot. My brain felt like it was jumping around in my skull. Yet I grabbed my laptop with the urge to work.
I shyly emailed my clients to let them know I had COVID-19 and “would be up and running in a few days,” and asked them to be patient with me. I was afraid to take back even a little bit of my workload. I’ve acted like this since I started my own remote business in 2012. Thanks to two customers who treated me cruelly – one yelled at me for my brief absence during a product announcement about an operation and another for missing a single meeting after a car accident – I had long ago decided that being sick was not a sufficient excuse was for not working. After all, it was so easy to just open the laptop and keep typing.
[Derek Thompson: Winners and losers of the work-from-home revolution]
I expected my customers – even in the midst of the pandemic – to react with disgust if I told them to slow down. Instead, I received numerous emails telling me not to worry and that their business would be there when I got back. I delegated tasks to some of my team and apologized profusely, after which they told me to go back to bed. In the same way, I treat my co-workers when they are sick, tell them to leave Slack, and send nice but firm reminders to rest when they answer business emails. But I’ve struggled for a long time to internalize these same messages. Before the pandemic broke out, within eight years I had a pitiful 35 days of vacation or just over four days a year, excluding weekends, but including sick days.
The COVID-19 contagion was a turning point in two ways:
- As hard as I tried, my body just wasn’t interested in making a proper day at work. Whether I wanted to or not, I couldn’t get my way.
- This was the first time in my life (luckily!) That I had a reason big and meaningful enough that no one on this earth would question whether I needed a break.
For similar reasons, I never really thought about burnout until the end of last year. I did not know how the build-up of psychological stress could affect me because I did not perceive my stress as real. I refused to see that I had taken too much on myself. I told myself that I was lucky enough to work from home, exercise from home, write a newsletter five times a week, and so I did everything to fill every minute of my work day. I finally bumped into a wall while apologizing to random Twitter users for not posting a free newsletter and forgetting to do things that were otherwise basic to me. I was emotionally and mentally burned out, which eventually led to physical burnout that eventually stopped me from doing sports, which made me feel bad.
Over time, my wife said, “Hey, maybe you’re burned out.” She insisted we go on a trip. I tormented myself about the days I spent outside of work and was idiotic worries that my company was going to collapse and she said it would be okay if it were, that we would survive and that she loved me . While that wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear, it was definitely what I needed to hear. As “easy” as it is to log on to vacation and start typing, that was still work, and while the chores of work feel easy because you’re not going to an office, they still wear you down. Like taking time out to deal with COVID, an actual vacation somehow hasn’t brought the world to a standstill.
[Read: Only your boss can cure your burnout]
Over the years I have felt privileged to run my business from home and have endured numerous colds, illnesses, and varying degrees of burnout, which probably worsened and prolonged my suffering due to my own stubbornness. I told myself that I don’t work in a factory, that I don’t have to be on my feet all day, and that I just complain. But COVID and my wife’s intervention made me realize that the flexibility of working from home – something I continue to evangelize – felt like a productivity trap.
We need a solution to the intrinsic tensions that exist both at the beginning and at the end of our working day and the murky terms under which one “can” be sick or burned out. It’s hard to tell what a teleworker does when he’s sick. You’re not really staying “home” when you normally work from home anyway, and when work is about to be there you need to stop scratching the itch that says it’s just an email. It will not take long. (Of course, this goes for working in an office too; before starting my own business, I got endless inquiries in my work email – connected to my smartphone or personal laptop – and still saw me checking my work stuff at any time of the day.)
Physical illness is one thing, but burnout as an employee problem is far more insidious. I’ve already written about how it’s not just about being tired, it’s about feeling overworked, helpless and hopeless. Not only is it too much work, but the feeling that it will never end, that you never get relief. Americans see burnout as a problem fixed by the boss but blamed on the worker. Businesses love telling their employees to take care of themselves, meditate, or take some time off instead of evaluating what burns them out in the first place. In my case, I’m the cause of my own burnout because I’ve chosen to put the greatest burden of business on myself and control the flow of work to other people. I remember that the boss, not the worker, controls working conditions, working hours, responsibility for failures, awards for success, etc. – all of these are factors that contribute to burnout and companies have tried to obscure their direct role. In response, many employees in industries such as media and entertainment are orchestrating unions for higher salaries and better working conditions.
[Ed Zitron: Why managers fear a remote-work future]
Earlier this year, the dating app Bumble gave employees a week of paid vacation to “deal with burnout”. This is a beautiful idea, and at face value it’s a generous olive branch. But the plan has one fatal flaw: by having everyone off at the same time, you are only delaying the work that needs to be done, rather than taking the work off people. This approach does not resolve an employee’s burnout because you, the boss, do not resolve it; They just postpone it, just as many companies seem to deal with their workers’ problems in general. If companies want to stop burning their employees, they need to define when the work day starts and end and make it clear that there is no penalty for “missing” an email outside of working hours. No one should hear Slack’s nasty little pop notification after dinner, and no one should send a single email outside of these hours unless absolutely necessary, especially on the weekend. When I say this, I don’t mean that someone can send an email on Sunday refusing, “You can reply this Monday”; I mean, “Don’t send out weekend emails or messages at all,” because it’s scary to know that there is something that you cannot do anything with or that you feel compelled to act on.
The problems I am highlighting are not actually related to working remotely, but are made worse by it. My first boss in PR – back in 2008 when I was working in an office! – sent malicious emails at any time of the day. The old school management culture may want us back to the physical office, if only to keep track of what we are doing. Even if we are apparently coming out of the worst of the pandemic, bosses will still annoy you with e-mails on vacation or ask you a “quick question” via SMS that “will only take a few minutes”.
Companies would be wise to rethink standard working hours and rigidly apply parameters. Remote workers work longer hours, among other things, because it’s much more difficult to quit – you’re already at home, you don’t have to commute, etc. – and because management has taken years of freedom with digital communications, as before. Research has shown that we naturally overestimate the expected urgency of our responses and therefore want to react to things when we receive them. The idea that we might receive an email outside of business hours is enough to give us what Virginia Tech researcher William Becker calls anticipatory stress – that in order to excel at our work, we are always ready need to read and reply to a business email. Again: this is not a workers problem; It’s an organizational problem that can change the moment a boss wants to change it.
In my case, I am the one who sets guidelines and boundaries, and although I am generous and careful with my expectations of others, I am still learning to set them for myself. My work day might end at 5 p.m., but I still read emails hours later, always ready for something to happen to make my fear right – that if I look away for two seconds, everything will fall apart. But I am slowly learning that a few hours or a day or even a week the world will not end and that these emails will be waiting for me when I have relaxed.
This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Sign up for their newsletter.