Burnout Is The Latest Weapon Against Your Work From Home Future

I am so tired of hearing from executives about remote work. I don’t care if you’re a CEO who’s anxious about culture, I don’t care about managers’ thoughts on the subject, and I don’t care if employers aren’t scared that people will quit if they’re forced back to the office. The study in that last link talks about how the C-suite isn’t scared about people quitting their jobs if they’re forced back:

On average, human resources and C-suite leaders expect only 8% of their employees will choose to quit once Covid restrictions are fully lifted, according to the survey. A quarter believe no one will quit. The firm polled 770 companies worldwide from May 10 to May 24, with the majority of the responses coming from the U.S.

The audience for studies like this is CEOs and managers who want to use their pathetic little fiefdoms to wield power over people, especially those that want to spread a culture of control based on fear. Nobody wants to do something alone, so by promoting the idea that the worker doesn’t have power - that they’re full of hot air and empty threats - creates a narrative that’s anti-worker and pro-executive. The rest of the article attempts to position this as a potential “surprise” to the C-suite, that they could be astounded by it, and of course asks a “people scientist” to talk about what could happen in this theoretical situation.

The problem with these articles - and a lot of the mediated discussion over this subject - is that it is letting the powerful set the tone of the conversation and control the narrative. Every one of these articles is the same - posit a thing, get some sort of expert to comment on it, and approach it entirely from the position of how CEOs could or should feel about it. While this is very much CNBC’s audience - the powerful and rich - this is a common refrain across almost every publication that discusses remote work. The narrative continually comes down to finding ways that remote work is bad, both-sidesing the issue with things like the Washington Post’s “pros and cons of remote work” which, of course, connects remote work to burnout:

Gruttadaro agreed. “If you used to work eight hours and now you’re working 10 to 11 hours, something else is being given up as part of your life,” she said. “If it’s social connectedness, if it’s doing activities you previously loved, if it’s exercise, those are all unfortunate things to give up because that’s what keeps us healthy.”

As I wrote yesterday, seemingly every burnout conversation becomes an indictment of the worker - how the worker can deal with it, why the worker is responsible, how the worker can avoid burnout, and so on. It only occurred to me yesterday that the burnout narrative has become inherently tied to the pandemic, and by extension working from home. The C-suite and the media have comfortably conflated the burnout that we felt from being isolated and terrified of an invisible, murderous virus with the conditions in which we worked - that remote work created burnout, not the situation or the work itself.

ABC News’ cry that “business leaders need a wake-up call to take burnout seriously” falls into the classic trope that remote work was to blame:

For those who have been working remotely, many reported working longer hours -- marked by days spent eating lunch at their desks or working through the time they would have spent commuting. As a shift to remote work blurred the boundaries between being on and off the clock, some data indicates work productivity actually ticked up during the health crisis.

Studies are popping up to link remote work to burnout, and, of course, continue to blame the worker for not being “conscientious” enough to avoid burnout while working remotely. And they’re less productive depending on the study you read, too. People are burned out from remote work, and thus it’s time to return to the office, which will somehow avoid that.

Burnout Isn’t Geographic

Based on the feedback I had from yesterday’s newsletter, people are absolutely facing burnout, and most of them are doing their jobs remotely. However, I specifically believe this isn’t created by the fact they’re working remote, but because remote work strips your work down to…well, the work itself. When we only have to deal with the work itself, it becomes much more obvious that the burnout is created by work, versus our colleagues, or our office, or our commute (which can contribute but are likely not the root cause). We also don’t have the niceties that we use to excuse our misery - our fun colleagues, workplace benefits like meals or “nap pods,” happy hours, and so on - we only have the work itself and the compensation we receive, and a lot less of the rest to either blame or excuse for how we feel.

Remote work’s growth within the pandemic may have justified its existence, and the specter of burnout is exactly what the C-suite needs to create a culture of fear. The pandemic burned us out by making our remote work and our homes the only things we had, unless we wanted to potentially get sick and die. As a result, it’s likely that most people experienced burnout on some level from being on the computer at home all day - we had little else to focus on beyond what was there, which was work, which naturally led to executive overreach and abuse. The natural excuse for this was that the “company culture” was affected by everyone being dispersed, and thus we all needed to be back in the office so that we could be organized, connected, and “give meaning” to our work - which would naturally fight the burnout we feel.

This is absolutely going to be the narrative that is used to fight against remote work. As I’ve written previously, burnout is something that is increasingly being made the worker’s problem (and, ideally for the C-suite and managers, something they created), and remote work is such a perfect target to blame. You’re at home, burning yourself out from working all hours of the day - likely because you have too much work or have managers bothering you to do it - you’d surely feel less burned out if you came into an office and “left your work at home.”

This specific framing is truly vile, as is a lot of the conversation about “hybrid work,” because it suggests that the office is a cage for work, and that once you leave it work magically disappears. The reality is that the office is regularly used to trap workers and abuse them, and management is fully capable of Slack messaging or emailing or text messaging you out of work hours - but that’s different than remote work, somehow.

The people that have reached out to me in the last 24 hours since I wrote about burnout have mostly echoed the same thing - that they are overworked, that they feel trapped by their jobs, that they feel as if they have too much work and too little time to do it. There is a manipulative media presence that is attributing this to being at home and constantly feeling the pull of work toward the computer, positing that workers are animals that cannot help but go on the computer and do more work, rather than victims of cultures that likely bother them at hours beyond the regular 9 to 5.

Those forcing people back to the office are doing so for their own pleasure - they know it’s less effective, they know there’s not going to be a productivity improvement, it just feels nice to stomp around your castle. Management is going to use the thesis of remote work burnout as a way of justifying the return to the office - a separation between your work life and your personal life that doesn’t actually exist in a cancerous office culture that constantly invades your emails and texts. The posit will be simple - if you’re at home, you’re productive, but you’re also burning yourself out from working too much and take your work home with you. The natural response is to not totally remove remote work, but to encourage you to come in to “get some face time.”

It’s all totally meaningless - the office is like a big magnifying glass for burnout, making it easy to inflict the mental wounds on workers that create burnout, like micromanagement and office politics. Corporations don’t care about you burning out, but they do care about their ability to manipulate you into blaming yourself for it, and the easiest way to do that is to say that it’s because you’re trapped at home with your computer too much.

Burnout is something that is more often than not created by a workplace culture of overworking and underserving the worker. It is something that is compounded - not relieved - by going into the office, where the mechanisms of control exist to help blame your burnout on anything other than the root cause. The anti-remote workforces are terrified of people going remote, because it’s so much easier to realize that your burnout is caused by a company that wants to own and control you and your time, and to turn you into a subjugated workaholic.