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Employers fret burnout as workers log longer hours, eschew vacations in the coronavirus pandemic

Working during the pandemic

68% of professionals working remotely admitted to working weekends

77% of men work on the weekends

61% of women work on the weekends

45% logged more than eight hours a day

34% of remote and onsite workers report being more burned out than a year ago

88% of managers worry about staff retention

47% cite the reason as heavy workloads

38% of workers are burned out by videoconferencing

28% griped about having technical issues

25% of working parents reported spending over half the workday in virtual meetings

Source: Robert Half Staffing agency

Jen Keegan quickly realized her work life had changed during the age of COVID-19 when she gave her commuter coffee mug a break and replaced it with a ceramic version working from home now.

Although she escaped a daily commute, the Sonoma County Behavioral Health clinician found she was working longer days.

“It feels like it takes 12 hours to do eight hours of work,” she said, joking. “I don’t remember ever drinking out of a ceramic mug so much.”

For good reason: Keegan has an 8-year-old boy at home trying to virtually master math and essay writing, and he needs help.

“I think parents are experiencing stress of having to do these things simultaneously,” she said.

Moreover, the temptation of taking care of work duties when the office is steps away instead of a drive away pulls her to the computer at all hours.

“I know it’s so important to leave work at work. It’s clearly a boundary issue,” said Keegan, who is hardly the first employee to find herself on worker overload.

Keegan canceled all her vacations this year, but she managed to wedge in a home-based break in October because the number of paid-time-off hours she had accumulated was “reaching her cap” with the county.

In one of three surveys conducted since August, staffing agency Robert Half found that nearly seven in 10 professionals who transitioned to remote work — 68% — admitted to working the weekends.

Almost half — 45% — logged more than their regularly scheduled eight hours per day. Men were more likely than women to report tending to business on weekends (77% versus 61%) and prolonging workdays (53% versus 38%).

Adding onto the stress, many of these remote workers have passed on taking their PTO. The thought is this: Why bother since the notion of going somewhere has gone out the window?

But as the end of the year approaches, company management is urging their workforces to step away from the desk to unwind — for the sake of their workers and perhaps their tax benefits. If a company is “accrual based” — an accounting method — it may receive a tax benefit by deducting the collective PTO by March 15.

“They can deduct the amount as part of their compensation plans from their financial reports within the first quarter,” Santa Rosa accountant Jon Dal Poggetto said. “Even in a pandemic, they want people to take their time off.”

Keeping workers refreshed

Luther Burbank Savings CEO Simone Lagomarsino decided to be proactive about her workers shying away from taking time off.

“As a bank, we require employees take a specific amount of time off a year,” she said.

In the fall, the bank chief announced the company would offer cash “in lieu of PTO,” she said. Banking is considered an essential business during the coronavirus outbreak, so these employees have plenty to do, and for some, nowhere special to go.

“People would have banked too much (PTO),” Lagomarsino told the Business Journal.

The reason for her encouraging staffers take time off was purely for their health, she said, adding that 42 of her 282 employees took the cash instead of using the days.

And with about 80% of her administrative staff working remotely, the CEO knew the workers needed other concessions strictly during a pandemic year.

“A lot of these employees are parents, so we also allow flex time for those who have to help their kids with school,” she said.

With many school districts offering only online learning, students are home with their parents. Interruptions are constant and often necessary.

Burning the candle

Many companies want their most valuable resources to take time off because the chance of burnout is greater if workers aren’t taking enough substantial breaks to rejuvenate themselves.

Santa Rosa Attorney Nicole Jaffee rang up 210 billable hours for Perry, Johnson, Anderson, Miller & Moskowitz in one month ending mid-November. Her usual number gravitates toward 160. The surge in workload increases with her extracurricular activities. She also serves on a diversity committee for the Sonoma County Bar Association.

Jaffee decided that even though she had no plans to go on vacation, she “staycationed” on Thanksgiving week because her mind and body were taxed while working remotely.

“I was so burned out, I pretty much laid around and slept for the week,” she said. “And if anyone knows me, they know that isn’t me. But you just gotta do it.”

The risk is substantial for those workers trying to muscle through mental and physical fatigue. In its Oct. 8 survey, Robert Half found 34% of workers — remote and onsite — are more burned out now than a year ago.

Working during the pandemic

68% of professionals working remotely admitted to working weekends

77% of men work on the weekends

61% of women work on the weekends

45% logged more than eight hours a day

34% of remote and onsite workers report being more burned out than a year ago

88% of managers worry about staff retention

47% cite the reason as heavy workloads

38% of workers are burned out by videoconferencing

28% griped about having technical issues

25% of working parents reported spending over half the workday in virtual meetings

Source: Robert Half Staffing agency

In the sampling of 2,800 workers, respondents pointed to having a fuller plate of work as the top reason. Those increased duties translate to longer days that bump some duties to the weekends and evening hours.

“What struck me most is people working through the weekends,” said Elizabeth Sheehan, a Robert Half Northern California manager for the Santa Rosa-and-beyond region. “It seems to me that should be an employee’s sacred time.”

The long hours and weeks blow the long-standing theory that remote work would prompt staffers to slack off of work. Many are actually “more productive” than ever before at this time, Sheehan cited.

“They’re being more productive much to their detriment,” she said. “I know we tell our employees (at the recruitment agency) to take their time off.”

The need for workers to relax may also be heightened by the fact many companies are doing more with less. In businesses that have undergone layoffs, the workers who are left are taking on more duties.

Senior managers have expressed cause for concern. In this fall’s Robert Half survey, 88% of those leaders revealed they are worried about staff retention. Of those who responded, 47% see potential of burnout because workers are carrying such heavy loads.

“There is definitely a concern about workers taking time off,” said Brenda Arnold, a Central Valley regional manager with Robert Half.

“It’s important for companies, aside from financial reasons, to look for signs of burnout,” she said. “This issue is widespread.”

Beyond working parents caring for children, some workers have taken on care of elderly parents who have moved out of nursing homes and other facilities where COVID-19 has been spreading.

“Of course, everybody’s situation is going to be different,” she said.

Calls for help

Even with outside burdens, there’s the remote working requirements themselves.

In its November survey, the Robert Half company said four in 10 workers suffer from video call fatigue. They cite dealing with constant technical issues or calls with too many people on as pet peeves.

Other findings:

  • 76% participate in virtual meetings
  • 38% said they were burned out by the practice
  • 26% noted the novelty has worn off after eight months with the pandemic
  • 19% didn’t relish how too many participants talk over each other
  • 25% of working parents reported spending over half of their on-the-job hours in virtual meetings
  • 47% of women and 32% of men insisted they’re tired of videoconferencing

As for the latter, Robert Half revealed that of those workers reporting burnout, 8% more women were likely than men to experience the weariness.

Many mothers are noticing they’re wearing many hats during the day — from executive and teacher to laundress and caretaker.

“There are real issues here, even from people working at home, with workloads,” said Santa Rosa Junior College history Professor Marty Bennett, who is also a North Bay Jobs for Justice founder.

Bennett pointed to mothers in particular who have been forced to step in with child- and daycare duties with schools closed.

“Jobs are harder at colleges and schools since we’ve placed the curriculum online,” he said.

Add to that, there’s the economic burden of living in an area in which two incomes are required to make ends meet.

“There are a lot of tradeoffs that every set of parents has considered,” he said.

Global Workplace Analytics President Kate Lister believes remote work is certainly a sensible option to avoiding masses of people during a pandemic. But it’s a choice that requires adequate planning and logistics as the tasks fill up the day into the night for members of the household.

“These are not normal times. We’re fighting for space with our spouse and children,” Lister said.

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