On this page, we're detailing how to recognize and avoid burnout in a remote setting. We'll also cover the issues of isolation and anxiety, and how to create a non-judgemental culture where teams are encouraged to work through it rather than internalize it.
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.
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 is 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.
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 organzation. 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
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.
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.
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 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 then 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
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 will 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.
Anyone can test their knowledge on considerations for a productive home office or remote workspace by completing the knowledge assessment. Earn at least an 80% or higher on the assessment to receive a passing score. Once the quiz has been completed, you will receive an email acknowledging the completion from GitLab with a summary of your answers. If you complete all knowledge assessments in the Remote Work Foundation, you will receive an unaccredited certification. If you have questions, please reach out to our Learning & Development team at
GitLab is the world's largest all-remote company. We are 100% remote, with no company-owned offices anywhere on the planet. We have over 1,300 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.