Zoe Amar: How to avoid remote team burnout

Leaders need to take a long, hard look at how their teams work and ask how they can help staff feel more valued and less weary

Eight months into the pandemic, you’re probably feeling tired and stressed. But when does this become a problem? 

With 51 per cent of UK workers toiling more than their contracted hours during lockdown, a lot of charity leaders I speak to are mindful of the risk of burnout in their teams.

Burnout is mental and physical exhaustion caused by living with an ongoing, highly stressful situation (hello, 2020).

With many charities working remotely via back-to-back Zoom calls, while managing falling income and rising demand for services, we need to ask whether this pace of work is sustainable. 

Some charities are trying to anticipate team burnout by prioritising staff wellbeing. Claire Warner, a fundraising and wellbeing consultant, argues that this term is associated with quinoa and yoga. 

But, she says, a charity that truly has wellbeing at the heart of its culture is one that is "delivering the circumstances in which individuals, teams and entire organisations are able to be well and perform 'well'".

In other words, we can’t just schedule online drinks and expect staff to magically feel re-energised.

Leaders need to take a long, hard look at how their teams work and ask how they can help staff feel more valued and less weary, so everyone can be more productive. 

So, how can you tackle this? 

Accept that burnout is an organisational risk

With one-third of UK workers saying that lockdown has pushed them closer to burnout, the scale of this problem is potentially huge. Leaders and boards need to commit to prioritising wellbeing. 

Chris O’Sullivan, head of communications and fundraising for Scotland and Northern Ireland at the Mental Health Foundation, warns that charities should be "recognising the risk, and accepting the need to mitigate against it as an organisational concern and not just an individual one". Should employee burnout be on the risk register? 

Rethink targets 

One of the biggest differences that leaders can make is in how they set expectations of staff when they are already under huge amounts of stress. 

Remote working depends on trust, and leaders may need to accept that their staff are more likely to achieve if they don’t have additional pressure. 

Samantha Dixon, chief executive of the Weston Park Cancer Charity, told me: "We are not as focused on pushing for annual targets as we might usually be, mostly because I feel that staff are working as hard and as smartly as they can under the circumstances." 

Avoid communication overload

During the first lockdown, leaders were often advised to over-communicate with their teams, but if people are on the edge of burnout they need space.

Try doing at least one meeting a day as a walking meeting on the phone, or mandating shorter meeting times. 

One leader I spoke to restricts their meetings to no more than five a day, each lasting 15 minutes maximum. 

"We give ourselves a licence to request to bail from video meetings if super-busy, and to keep reviewing how we meet and work effectively,” advises Honor Wilson-Fletcher, chief executive of the British Exploring Society. 

Staff working from home are not a captive audience and require less in their diaries, not more, so they can get on with their jobs.

Leaders could also review how their team is working remotely using this three-step process.

Leaders are at risk of burnout too

It can be lonely at the top, especially when you are working remotely. Making time for sleep, exercise and staying in contact with friends and peers will help. 

Ed Mayo, chief executive of Pilotlight, agrees: "Never ever allow yourself to think that you are alone. Your number-one task, as a leader of teams, is to make sure that you are not." 

If we can look after our people, even when we can’t be together, that is the first step on the journey to building a sustainable future. 

Zoe Amar is the founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Digital @zoeamar

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