Remote work burnout can manifest itself in many ways, including stress, isolation, or anxiety. Leaders need to promote a healthy, non-judgemental culture where individuals are encouraged to prevent or work through burnout rather than hiding or internalizing struggles.
In this CEO handbook learning session, Sid and other leaders at GitLab discuss the importance recognizing the signs of remote work burnout, taking time off, and addressing imposter syndrome.
It can be more difficult to notice burnout on a distributed team. Managers and individual contributors should be trained and prepared to understand the signs - and more importantly, the entire team should be trained in behaviors and processes that help prevent it from happening in the first place.
In the People Group Conversation above, GitLab CEO Sid Sijbrandij responds to a discussion on the topic of burnout and overwork.
There's individual freedom, and there's peer pressure. As a company, we should take a lot of care that there's no peer pressure to work long hours.
Everyone is used to that [being pressured]. At every company I've been at, that was a celebrated thing. We have to be super, super careful that we do not celebrate that at GitLab. — Sid Sijbrandij, GitLab co-founder and CEO
There's a fine line between thanking someone publicly for going above and beyond to help out in a situation, and sending a message that work should always trump life. Burnout rarely happens all at once. Rather, it typically takes one by surprise, eventually coming to a head after days, weeks, or months of overwork creep.
While working one additional hour to move a given project forward is likely not debilitating when viewed in a vacuum, it can trigger a revised baseline where you must continue to overwork in order to maintain the new status quo.
This becomes toxic when managers fail to recognize that a given sprint should not reset the baseline of what is achievable on an ongoing, sustained basis. It becomes disastrous when team members do not feel safe bringing this up to their managers in a 1:1 setting.
Particularly in a company where results are valued above all, managers should be careful to not assume that results garnered in a given period of overwork are the new norm. This places team members in an unfair scenario where they feel pressured to perpetually overwork in order to meet expectations. More broadly, as other team members witness this, they will be less likely to go above and beyond in special cases for fear of trapping themselves in a similar cycle of overworking just to meet ever-increasing (and unsustainable) expectations.
Though it sounds counter to conventional wisdom, clarity comes through time away from work. Just as a human must inhale and exhale to survive, one cannot expect to remain healthy and productive if only inhaling more work.
As John Fitch describes in the book Time Off, there are four stages of creativity. This was initially outlined by English social psychologist and London School of Economics co-founder Graham Wallas.
John Fitch, co-founder of Time Off, articulates this on The Culture Factor podcast. A portion of the interview is transcribed below.
Incubation and illumination are only activated through time off — by not doing the actual work, by doing something else. While you're resting, parts of you are still working. I came to this contrarian belief that your best work is actually cultivated outside of work.
50% of the creative process requires you to not be working. — John Fitch
Establishing a culture that gives voice to this reality is critical in removing the stigma from taking breaks and prioritizing wellbeing. Rest isn't at the expense of work; it's a core function of doing excellent work.
As part of his session at REMOTE by GitLab, John shares how organizations can intentionally build company policy and culture that support and encourage time off. Watch the session:
GitLab's L&D team also hosted a live speaker series with John to discuss how intentional time off can help manage burnout and enable team members to create high quality work. Check out the recording:
Wendy Barnes, Chief People Officer at GitLab, sat down with Samantha Lee from the Learning and Development team for a short conversation to answer the following questions.
Watch the short interview below.
Traditionally, we've emphasized the importance of having a strong work ethic. Finding a balance with your work ethic and your rest ethic is essential for avoiding burnout. Building and nurturing your rest ethic creates the energy needed to enable your work ethic. Dr. Saundra Dalton Smith talks about the importance of rest and the types of rest we need in her TedTalk, The 7 Types of Rest that Every Person Needs.
Examples of how you might define your rest ethic:
Start building a rest ethic now with this 8-minute meditation hosted by Britt Turpack. You can watch the full speaker series event with Britt on the GitLab Unfiltered YouTube channel.
To learn more about building a rest ethic, refer to this course by John Fitch and TimeOff entitled Design your Rest Ethic.
GitLab hosted John Fitch for 2 Live Speaker Series during the month of May 2021. In the following discussions, John shared great strategies for manager enablement of rest ethic, the importance of rest, and the impact that intentional rest has on results. Check out both recorded sessions below!
There are many mental health benefits to remote work, but some that top the list are:
Remote work is not for everyone. We have done a deep dive on specific remote-work challenges and solutions, including mental health struggles that could be aggravated by:
A remote role can feel lonely, especially if you're transitioning from a traditional office setting. It's important to take inventory of your mental health and take action as needed.
Burnout, isolation, and anxiety are issues that impact team members across all companies, regardless of their organizational structure. While they aren't always intertwined, there is significant interplay between them.
In a colocated setting, it's entirely possible for a team member to appear well, but struggle with these issues internally. That said, it tends to be easier for those in an office to reach out to a team member they trust (or their people department) if burnout, isolation, or anxiety is impacting their ability to thrive in the workplace.
In a remote setting, where in-person interactions are less common, it's easier to fall victim to isolation. This is particularly true for those who are not well acclimated to remote work, or have just started their first remote role.
Because you are likely to work alone most times, it's more difficult to remember that you do have colleagues to call on — especially if you're already overwhelmed, burned out, or suffering from anxiety/depression.
The aforementioned reality makes it all the more important for any company hiring remote workers to place a great deal of focus on documenting processes for team members who face these difficulties. Along with offering professional assistance (see GitLab Modern Health as an example), be sure to showcase documented resources of where to turn during onboarding, and reinforce this in ongoing learning and development sessions.
Remote team members may feel less comfortable reaching out to a person when experiencing mental duress, so it's vital to ensure that answers and resources are easily discoverable within a company's handbook.
This approach enables managers and leaders to experience less anxiety and worry of being a single point of failure. By documenting diligently, it is easier for managers to take time for themselves, prioritize family, and earnestly disconnect during holidays and vacation.
Documentation allows a significant portion of one's managerial expertise to be tapped into even while the manager is away recharging, and this intentional decentralization creates a greater sense of calm for both leaders and direct reports.
John Fitch, co-author of Time Off and the Chief Product Officer at Voltage Control, shares a powerful anecdote on this approach on The Culture Factor podcast. A portion of the interview is transcribed below.
My function of head of design and prototyping — if I'm the only one doing it, that's a problem. If I go away or something happens to me, that entire function is compromised. It's a single point of failure. When you decentralize, you get rid of single points of failure.
Clarity is a part of a decentralized organization. That way, anyone can pick up and understand "It's clear what we're here to do. Our values are clear."
Much like an engineer will take their code and document it, that work is important. Another engineer can look at their code, and without emailing that person, make use of what has been created. Quality documentation has historically been a hallmark of engineering. We treat that the same regardless of function. When I'm away, I can be away. I don't have to worry about my team forgetting things.
Just as journaling is important externally, it's powerful internally. Documenting my functions opens my eyes to self-improvement. As I'm writing things down, I can more clearly see better ways to do things. — John Fitch
Working entirely or primarily in a chat tool such as Microsoft Teams or Slack is a pathway to burnout. Humans were not designed to have hundreds or thousands of people demanding things from them with red bubbles. There is a reason your phone can only allow one conversation at a time.
Leadership can create a more humane atmosphere by leaning on a tool (or tools) that enable asynchronous workflows, thereby reducing meetings and creating more time for focused, deep work. GitLab uses GitLab to accomplish this.
GitLab is a collaboration tool designed to help people work better together, whether they are in the same location or spread across multiple time zones. Originally, GitLab let software developers collaborate on writing code and packaging it up into software applications. Today, GitLab has a wide range of capabilities used by people around the globe in all kinds of companies and roles.
You can learn more at GitLab's remote team solutions page.
Transparency is a core value at GitLab, and should be a value at any organization employing remote team members. Leaders should assume that some team members will feel uncomfortable surfacing issues involving isolation, burnout, and anxiety at work. This can stem from prior experiences, where bringing such issues to light could lead to negative consequences.
To combat this and destigmatize such issues, leadership should work to build and sustain a non-judgemental culture. This starts by celebrating a diverse team, and creating an inclusive work environment.
At GitLab, we encourage team members to include overall feedback on how their life is going during routine 1:1 meetings. Managers are responsible for creating a safe atmosphere, where team members can openly discuss issues related to mental health, and work with the team member to a resolution.
GitLab also offers a Slack channel —
#mental_health_aware — dedicated to surfacing and discussing topics related to mental health.
Creating a non-judgmental culture requires leaders to cultivate psychological safety within their teams. This means ensuring that team members feel safe to take healthy risks, openly admit when they make mistakes, and challenge one another in a productive, positive way.
Not only can this affect each individual team member's performance and wellbeing, it also has an impact on the overall environment of inclusion and belonging on your team. This is particularly important in a remote or hybrid environment, especially for a global team with varying experiences. Understanding your team members' perspectives requires a high level of empathy, communication, and intentionality.
Learn more about how to build a psychologically safe environment.
There should be no stigma in questioning efficiency. What was ultimately most efficient a year ago may not be true today. If you sense that a team is overworking and creating a cycle of overwork for those in proximity, consider pausing to workshop how to work less.
This environment creates a space where individuals can surface new tools and technologies which may be able to lighten the human load, or surface new realities in how the market has shifted to a point where certain elements of work are no longer as valuable.
A regular cycle of these workshops creates moments for reevaluation. A rest and creativity ethic is just as important as a work ethic, particularly when you consider that outstanding work requires a certain amount of creativity and clarity.
Oftentimes, if you are feeling burned out, you aren't the only one feeling that way. GitLab team members have compiled a list of symptoms related to burnout, isolation, and anxiety in a blog post. A few are highlighted below.
You're constantly tired
You no longer enjoy things
Your job performance suffers
Your physical health suffers (headaches, irregular breathing patterns, etc.)
Your relationships are strained
You feel socially zapped
You disable video for team calls to prevent others from seeing your pain
You are perpetually concerned with whether you are doing enough
You worry that your contributions are too few or too insignificant
You feel unable to choose family first
In the video above, Darren (Head of Remote, GitLab) and Sara (Senior Partner Marketing Manager, GitLab) discuss tips, tricks, and insights on preventing burnout and achieving balance.
Prevention is a team sport. Leaders must work to establish a workplace culture that empowers rather than restricts, managers must be proactive in sensing the signs of mental strain, and team members must feel comfortable surfacing issues while they are still manageable. Below are several recommendations for avoiding and preventing burnout, according to GitLab team members.
GitLab has added a number of changes to the company handbook, encouraging managers and team members to be proactive when it comes to recognizing and avoiding burnout, isolation, and anxiety.
It's therapeutic to set an annual reminder (near year-end works well) to block out windows for potential PTO in the year ahead. Toggle through the forward 12 months in Google Calendar and create
Busy blocks entitled "Blocked for Potential PTO" during days or weeks where future-you may appreciate present-you scheduling time off. Days before and after major holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, daylight savings time (time off to savor more sunshine!), or other moments of importance are a great place to start.
Be liberal in scheduling these blocks. They are two-way doors, and can always be removed or reduced. This exercise serves as a forcing function to be proactive about scheduling time to rest and recharge before you need it. It also provides a great visual pause for others. E.g. If someone wants to schedule you for a webinar in six weeks, but notices a
Potential PTO Block on your calendar, it will prompt them to ask you if you intend to convert it to a definitive PTO block. This prevents your schedule from perpetually filling up before you have a chance to formalize a break.
If you find yourself anxious about missing out, or overlooking a work-related to-do list, consider replacing that to-do list with a PTO To-Do List for the duration of your paid time off. This may include items such as practice yoga, schedule coffee with a family member or friend, go for a walk/hike/cycle, sleep X hours per night, nap X hours per day, read X chapters in a new book, etc.
It is easy to focus on the negatives. Many times when something goes wrong, or we make a mistake, we jump to the negative outcomes. In these moments, take a pause and ask yourself "What is good about this situation?". Focusing on the positive impact can make your day go a lot better. It is easy to forget to focus on gratitude, so if needed, help yourself with a prompt. A simple reminder in your calendar, or Post-It note at your work station with the word gratitude can remind you to focus on what you've learned or discovered in a situation rather than the negatives. You can also try asking yourself what you are grateful for each morning to start getting in the habbit of focusing on the positives.
This section has been contributed by Matt Mochary.
GitLab team members are welcome to join the
#daily-gratitude Slack channel (and remember, there's also a
Whether you're communicating with a coworker or someone external to the company, it's helpful to be transparent about the boundaries you've set for your mental health, wellbeing, and life outside of work. This is especially impactful for managers and leaders, because it normalizes the conversation around mental health and sets an example for others on the team.
If you're invited to a sync meeting that you can contribute to asynchronously, this can be as simple as one line added to an email response. Here's an example from Darren M., GitLab's Head of Remote:
"I'm intentionally limiting my sync sessions in 2021 to prioritize wellbeing and family. Thanks for understanding."
This is also something you can discuss live with your manager or team during regular 1:1 or team meetings. Sharing openly about these boundaries builds empathy, trust, and reinforces a non-judgmental culture.
Leadership must be sensible about expectations. If a company's OKRs (objectives and key results) and KPIs (key performance indicators) are unattainable without compromising company values, this incongruence is a recipe for fostering burnout, isolation, and anxiety across a team.
It is foolish to expect a team member to maintain excellent mental health when their workload requires a sustained amount of sacrifice. There is a fine line between collaborating with a team member on an ambitious goal and assigning a task that will be perceived as impossible.
This nuance requires a leader who is adept at understanding a team member's strengths and weaknesses. What is perceived as impossible for one team member may seem trivial to another; it is not always the task that triggers duress, but mismatching a task with an ill-equipped team member.
This can be more pronounced in a remote setting. Leaders should pay close attention to blockers and struggles, and be proactive in asking about these during 1:1 sessions. Phrasing questions such as "Are there any assignments that you do not feel comfortable or equipped to handle?" is a better way to uncover truth compared to a blanket "Why isn't this working?"
It's also important to understand that not every team members prefers to discuss these topics using the same medium. While some may prefer video communication, others may prefer voice, writing, or something else. Remote leaders should strive to be inclusive when searching for answers and solutions.
Particularly in remote companies, leadership should consider implementing processes around internal feedback. Companies will often wait to gather internal feedback until an exit interview after someone's resigned, or they'll organize an occasional survey to take a pulse on the company’s engagement. GitLab prefers shorter, but more frequent, check-ins, aligned to our values of collaboration and iteration.
Ask questions that shed light on whether or not a team member is thriving or struggling, and pay close attention to any adjustable workplace factors that are contributing either positively or negatively.
Learn more about GitLab's approach and guidance on feedback.
One of the more challenging aspects of remote work is closing your mental "tabs" once you disconnect from work. Since remote enables you to work a non-linear workday, it's difficult to rationalize where one working session ends and another begins.
You can reduce your mental load by clearing all your unread messages at the end of each working day or week (seriously!). Slack refers to this as
Mark all messages as read, which is easily toggled by simultaneously pressing
Create a rudimentary README that clarifies how you work. Ideally, it's working from a GitLab Issue board, tagging system, or To-Do list which can be understood and used company-wide. You can then post the link to your README in your Slack profile, pointing others to it. Showing others how to deliberately chose asynchronous over synchronous is vital to reinforcing our operating principle of Bias towards asynchronous communication.
In a remote setting, it's important to let others know you need uninterrupted focus. Many at GitLab utilize Clockwise, which automatically showcases a calendar icon and triggers
Do Not Disturb within Slack while you're in a meeting, and shows when you're outside of set working hours.
You should feel safe to manually adjust your status to indicate when you are at capacity or engaged in focus time. This models healthy boundaries while communicating that Slack and synchronous conversation should not be the default.
Be aware of how much time you spend working versus distractions. You can use time tracking tools to get a baseline, then set goals for increasing productivity as you learn to reduce distractions.
This Forbes article on remote-work time management tips also recommends
GitLab employee Matej L. outlines 9 tips for eliminating remote work distractions and being more productive here.
Pro tip: experiment with removing Slack from your phone. A litany of studies have covered the addictive nature of smartphones. Even if you aren't sure if this approach will benefit you, give it a try. It's what we call a two-way door.
The following tools and strategies are used by the GitLab team to manage burnout and make mental health a priority.
|Clockwise||Calendar management app|
|Non-Linear Workdays||All-remote work strategy to increase life harmony|
|README Files||Space to share bio, remote work setup, and information about working style. Check out the GitLab's Engineering Team README files as an example.|
|Slack||Non-work conversation in channels like
|The donut bot||Random coffee chat meeting match bot|
|Modern Health Community Circles||Public community converstaions hosted by Modern Health|
|Coffee Chats||Social calls with team members|
|Walk and Talk meeting structure||An optional structure for both work and social calls|
|Burnout Index||Burnout assessment tool|
|Burnout assessment||Burnout assessment tool|
|Daylio||Mood tracker app|
Complete all knowledge assessments in the Remote Work Foundation certification to receive the Remote Foundations Badge in GitLab Learn. If you have questions, please reach out to our Learning & Development team at
GitLab is one of the world's largest all-remote companies. We are 100% remote, with no company-owned offices anywhere on the planet. We have over 1,500 team members in more than 65 countries. The primary contributor to this article (Darren Murph, GitLab's Head of Remote) has over 15 years of experience working in and reporting on colocated companies, hybrid-remote companies, and all-remote companies of various scale.
Just as it is valid to ask if GitLab's product is any good, we want to be transparent about our expertise in the field of remote work.
Creating a healthy remote workplace is essential to business success. If you or your company has an experience that would benefit the greater world, consider creating a merge request and adding a contribution to this page.
Return to the main all-remote page.