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Combating burnout, isolation, and anxiety in the remote workplace

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Introduction

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.

Do not celebrate working long hours

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.

Document processes around mental health

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.

This 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.

Creating a non-judgemental culture

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.

How to recognize mental health struggles

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.

  1. You're constantly tired

  2. You no longer enjoy things

  3. Your job performance suffers

  4. Your physical health suffers (headaches, irregular breathing patterns, etc.)

  5. Your relationships are strained

  6. You feel socially zapped

  7. You disable video for team calls to prevent others from seeing your pain

  8. You are perpetually concerned with whether you are doing enough

  9. You worry that your contributions are too few or too insignificant

  10. You feel unable to choose family first

Working to prevent burnout, isolation, and anxiety

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 managable. Below are several recommendations for avoiding and preventing burnout, according to GitLab team members.

  1. Set clear boundaries between work and home
  2. Take vacation
  3. Know when to take a break
  4. Switch off when you're away from work
  5. Don't suffer in silence
  6. Don't go straight to work after you wake up
  7. Remove Slack from your smartphone or at the very least, turn off notifications for it
  8. Keep each other accountable. When you notice someone in a different time zone should be asleep, tell them
  9. Use your Slack status to share a message with the team that you are unavailable
  10. Schedule random coffee breaks

The power of being proactive

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.

  1. Encourage team members to communicate with their manager when they recognize burnout
  2. Encourage team members to notice signs of burnout in their peers and direct reports
  3. Added tips to avoid burnout

Realistic expectations

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.

Sentiment tracking and feedback

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.

Contribute your lessons

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.