Guest Post by Cynthia Milota, Director of Workplace Strategy, Ware Malcomb, and Sally Augustin, PhD, Environmental Psychologist, Design With Science

The pandemic workforce conducting business from home is working longer hours (Shi, 2020), taking less vacation (Carino, 2020) and reporting increasingly negative feelings (APA ,2020). The honeymoon period of working from home is over. Reality has set in and office workplace burnout has followed the workforce home.

Burnout is a form of job stress characterized by emotional exhaustion, cynicism and decline in professional efficacy (Cherniss, 1980). Recently workplace burnout was recognized by the World Health Organization as an “occupational phenomena” spurring the development of evidence-based guidelines on mental well-being in the workplace (WHO, 2019). To explore how Covid-19 burnout is impacting our clients’ workforces and to develop mitigation tools, Ware Malcomb’s workplace strategy team developed a research initiative with environmental psychologist, Dr. Sally Augustin. Conducting structured interviews in July and August 2020 with clients from various regions and industries, the project focused on how employees were managing working from home.

Research Findings

Many of the findings were as expected, and included loss of connections, accumulated stress, lack of routine, and seeking validation from others. Surprisingly, inconsistencies in the data revealed thought-provoking contradictions.

  • Employees are exhausted by the process of maintaining social ties

People are working to keep their personal and professional connections; however, the highly scheduled nature of interactions make them more obligatory than restorative.

  • Employee engagement survey scores are high despite evidence of burnout

Gallup suggests an organization’s response to a crisis impacts employee engagement. Record gains in Gallup’s 2020 “highly engaged” category can be attributed to positive employer responses, employees feeling fortunate to have a job and a significantly smaller survey pool, due to high unemployment.

  • Enterprise change is occurring at record speeds while day-to-day tasks take longer

Organizations in the study implemented process improvements and new software improvements significantly faster than in pre-Covid settings. However, routine tasks were often bogged down by delays in virtual responses, lack of impromptu interactions and trying to mimic office behaviors and norms while working from home.

  • Shorter, more frequent meetings

The duration of meetings has decreased from 1 hour to about 45 minutes. At the same time, the number of meetings in a day has increased by 10% (DeFilippis, 2020). Organizations modifying the default meeting durations to 25 and 50 minutes may be a contributing factor, along with shortened virtual attention spans, at-home distractions and “Zoom fatigue” (Shi, 2020).

  • Waiting for the quality of work to decline

Work quality was anticipated by many leaders to decline during the work-from-home time. But survey results from a study in July 2020 indicated just the opposite: the workforce reported that they were just as productive as before (Bernstein, 2020). Employees felt that corporate comradery and management’s low expectations spurred increased productivity and the desire to prove their value to the team and organization. 

  • Remote first or Office first

Organizations are re-imagining their mobility profiles. Will they be remote first with some in-office presence, or will the model largely remain hybrid, in-office first while allowing for remote work? Pre-Covid, employees often had to prove why they should be permitted to work from home. Post-Covid, employers will have to prove why their employees should return to the office.

  • One size does not fit all…even within one organization

Within a single organization there can be different mobility demands; the sales organization may need to get out of the house and back in front of customers while operations teams are content and productive working from home. Navigating these variable and dynamic requirements demands a flexible, scalable approach.

Mitigating Burnout

The Ware Malcomb study findings echo the literature. Burnout can be mitigated by fixing the person, fixing the job (Maslach, 2017) or fixing the environment. As the workforce has moved home, environmental factors at home now have greater influence on workforce burnout than those at corporate offices.

Fixing the Person

There is a “bias toward fixing the person” in the research (Maslach, 2017), rather than addressing systemic job or work environment issues. Common psychology-centered approaches to mitigating burnout by fixing the person are outlined by Maslach, 2017 below:

  • Health and fitness
  • Relaxation strategies
  • Self-understanding
  • Coping skills
  • Change in work patterns
  • Social support

Fixing the Job

Providing the tools employees need to do their best work is a way to “fix the job.” These tools include time to complete a task (Maslach & Leiter, 2017), spaces where people can collaborate and conduct focus work when needed and spaces for psychological refreshment. Access to colleagues and community building are by-products of robust social interactions. Also, combating loneliness and isolation are cited by Gallup (Hickman, 2019) as means to build team and reduce burnout.

Fixing the Work Environment

Workplace research provides evidence that environmental factors influence workforce satisfaction and performance. With much of the workforce not yet back to the office, the home-work environment continues to contribute to satisfaction. Leesman’s most recent work-from-home survey results indicated that the home-work setting matters. Employees with a dedicated work room or space report being more connected to their colleagues and the organization than those working in a non-specific home location, like the dining room table (Rothe, 2020).

In their 2016 research, Al Horr, et al, identified how aspects of physical workplaces can be used to create positive work environments. In these sorts of workplaces, people are less likely to experience burnout.  Several of these factors are controllable in the home-work environment, including indoor air quality and ventilation, artificial lighting, day lighting, and outdoor views as well as biophilia or a view to nature.

While there are significant interactions and crossovers between these factors, as a group they represent environmental conditions present at both the office and the home. The physical workplace, home or office, impacts the ability to get work done and the effective management of all these factors diminishes burnout opportunities, no matter the location.


American Psychological Association, (APA), (2020, July), “Stress in the time of COVID-19, volume three.”

Carino, M. (2020, August, 17), “Workers are putting off vacations as pandemic increases stress,” MarketPlace.

Cherniss, C. (1980), Staff Burnout: Job stress in the human services. Beverly Hill, CA: Sage.

Harter, J., (2020, February 4), “4 Factors Driving Record-High Employee,” GALLUP.

DeFilippis, E., Impink, S.M., Singell, M., Polzer, J.T., Sadun, R., (2020, July), “Collaborating during coronavirus: The impact of covid-19 on the nature of work,” The National Bureau of Economic Research.

Rothe, P., (2020), “The Home working Impact Code,” Leesman Index.

Shi, D., (2020, August 28), “One thing that the pandemic could be changing? Meeting lengths,” Fast Company.

Cynthia Milota is Director of Workplace Strategy at Ware Malcomb.

Sally Augustin, PhD, is Environmental Psychologist at Design With Science.