Pandemic burnout is real. The impact of an always-on remote work-life is taking its toll — especially on mothers. This essay discusses three simple but effective strategies for addressing pandemic burnout in Agile teams.

Does This Sound Familiar?

It’s been a hectic day of back-to-back 30-minute video calls and it’s now 5 p.m. You disconnect your headphones, release a resounding sigh, and announce (to no one in particular), “Finally, time to get some REAL work done.” For the next three hours, you respond to the dozens of emails you received throughout the day, recap some meeting notes and action items, and create some documents that you forward to your team with a request for feedback by noon tomorrow.

At 8 p.m., you hit Send on your last email of the evening, log off, and decompress with your beverage of choice and an episode of your favorite Netflix show. Despite the fact that you just clocked a 12-hour day and have been doing so ever since the pandemic transformed your office job into a full-time remote working arrangement, you feel relaxed and accomplished. 

But what about the recipients of your emails? Did they log off that evening also feeling relaxed, accomplished, and in a good place to start the next day? How will they feel when they log in tomorrow morning to an already full inbox? Or will they feel inclined to check their phones tonight?

And then it happens . . . a team member responds to one of your emails at 8:30 p.m. That compels another team member to respond. Now it’s created a lengthy exchange. You repeatedly pause and rewind your Netflix show to read and respond. Your desire to achieve that feeling of accomplishment has created a negative cyclical effect on you and your team. 


To Connect or Disconnect – That Is the Question

Although the digital age has enabled an “always on” mentality for decades, the pandemic has exacerbated this expectation for workers, many of whom are now fully remote.

The burnout of 24×7 connectivity to the workplace is real. Even before the pandemic, a 2018 Virginia Tech study demonstrated that the mere expectation of having to be connected to work during off-hours caused harmful effects to employees and their significant others — even when they hadn’t actually engaged in off-hours work.

The impact of burnout has also affected women in unique ways. A McKinsey study, published in September 2020, highlighted a concerning pattern of women leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers as a result of pandemic burnout. The factors cited included, but were not limited to, an inflexible work environment, a feeling of always being “on,” and the competing burdens of housework and caregiving. The study also found that, “Since the pandemic, mothers that are part of a dual-career couple are twice as likely as fathers in a dual-career couple to spend five more hours a day on chores.”

Clearly, we have a need to disconnect.

Government Attempts to Create a Right to Disconnect 

In 2016, long before the pandemic, France adopted the “El Khomri law” (named after France’s Minister of Labor at the time) that included, among other provisions, the “Right to Disconnect.” However, the law was purposely written to be non-specific, putting the onus on employers to define specific obligations for its employees.

Subsequently, a long list of countries have attempted to tackle workplace over-connectivity with legislation, including Belgium, Canada, India, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the Philippines. Even New York City’s City Council introduced a bill in 2018 providing employees a right to disconnect from work communications — although it has been stalled since January 2019.

Some companies have supported employees’ right to disconnect without a legal mandate, most notably Volkswagen, which implemented a policy nearly a decade ago that stopped its mail server from delivering email to workers after hours. 


Addressing Burnout — An Opportunity for Leadership

Even broader than a right to disconnect, corporate leaders have a responsibility to understand the impact of burnout on individuals as well as the wider effect on the organization and its customers. Legislation should not be the driver for leaders to become more attuned to the needs of their employees.

Taking action does not require a huge transformative change to achieve a cultural shift. In the case of alleviating burnout, even small, intentional actions can have a major positive impact. 

Here are three simple but effective strategies that leaders should consider to alleviate pandemic burnout:

1. Create Working Agreements That Establish Boundaries

Leadership training typically emphasizes setting expectations about the work to be done and due dates, but little emphasis is placed on how and when to do the work. When leaders collaborate with their teams to establish Working Agreements, they have the opportunity to fully articulate expectations that everyone can understand.

As my colleague Carlton Nettleton explained in a previous blog, Working Agreements are “agreed upon protocols created by the team to govern their interactions and clarify expectations.” They also give the team permission and courage to hold their fellow team members accountable for upholding the agreements.

At Applied Frameworks, we have a “Family First” Working Agreement. That Working Agreement includes the following terms: 

    • Information flows freely during working hours
    • Slack is our primary method of communication; emails should be limited
    • Slack messages directed at a specific individual should be returned within four hours 
    • Text messages should be returned within one hour — and it is OK to reply with “Will respond later”
    • Phone calls are OK for more urgent matters

Understanding these expectations during working hours and keeping to our “Family First” agreement allows individuals to establish their own desired level of connectedness within reasonable parameters, and sets expectations within the organization.


2. PAUSE Your Emails – A Simple Framework

Leaders can help team members disconnect by advocating for no emails to be sent after 6 p.m. With this policy, in order for it to be effective, leaders must “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk” by first refraining – themselves – from sending emails after 6 p.m. 

Additionally, leaders can use the PAUSE framework, and encourage their employees to do the same. Before sending an after hours email, PAUSE before you press the “Send” button, PAUSE being an acronym for:  

Purpose: Consider why you are sending the email in the first place. Is email the best method of communication or would a quick chat or Slack message suffice? 

Audience: Who is on your distribution list? Does everyone need to be included? This is especially important to consider if you do intend to send an after-hours email.

Urgency: Is it imperative that you communicate your message immediately? Are others expecting to hear from you?

Sentiment: Is your message positive or negative? Could it elicit worry, fear, frustration, or stress on the part of the recipient?

Exception: If you send the email after-hours, would recipients understand why you were compelled to do so? Would they view it as an exception, not the norm?

What are some alternatives to sending an after-hours email? 

Draft your emails and schedule them to be sent the next day, staggering their delivery based on order of importance. Adopt other primary communication channels such as Slack. While Slack messages still accumulate, they are often easier to manage and locate than emails.


3. Schedule 45-Minute Meetings

Over the past several years, I’ve observed a trend of scheduling shorter meetings in the spirit of productivity. What was once a standard 60-minute meeting has become a standard 30-minute meeting. However, I’ve seen this trend lead to an unintended consequence. Instead of shorter, more productive meetings that allow for more independent work, calendars get filled up with twice the number of meetings. The result is more context switching, more to-do lists, and more mental exhaustion.

To minimize harmful context switching and mental burnout, leaders can promote scheduling 45-minute meetings. Even if you have a day full of meetings, you will have time in between to leave your desk, stretch, walk around, eat, and take a mental break.

Some meetings won’t take the full 45-minutes and in those cases, it’s acceptable to end early. A 45-minute meeting also offers attendees a chance to ease into meetings by exchanging pleasantries or practicing a check-in protocol instead of hearing over and over again, “Ok team, we only have 30 minutes so let’s jump right into our agenda!”


Agile Principles Embody Reducing Burnout

Given customer commitments and the time zone challenges of global teams, it’s natural to think that disconnecting just isn’t realistic. But the cost of failing to address burnout may be greater than sticking with the status quo. The authors of the Agile Manifesto saw it this way:

Agile principle #5: Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

Agile principle #8: Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely. 

Instituting Working Agreements and finding ways for team members to more freely and openly disconnect during and after the workday directly embody these two principles. Instead of lamenting, “We can’t!” challenge yourself to consider, “How can we…?” because that is the mindset shift that fosters positive change.