More than three-quarters of Australian and New Zealand knowledge workers say they suffered burnout in 2020 as they worked longer and much later following the rapid shift to remote work, according to new research.

The results suggest the perceived benefits of working from home can be quickly undermined by longer hours and a lack of separation from the working environment, leading to chronic problems for workers.

An online poll of 13,123 global knowledge workers by workplace management software provider Asana, showed the pandemic fuelled migration to remote work had negative effects like longer working hours and more missed deadlines.

On average, ANZ knowledge workers worked late 436 hours in 2020. That is 200 more hours of late work than in 2019, according to the study which is conducted annually.

The resulting chronic workplace problems are worse in Australia, according to the report, with higher rates of burnout (77 per cent) compared to the global average (71 per cent).

The World Health Organisation defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. According to the health authority, burnout is characterised by feelings of exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.

Dr. Sahar Yousef, Cognitive Neuroscientist, UC Berkeley. Supplied.

Workers surveyed by Asana said their burnout led to lower morale, more mistakes, and a lack of engagement with work.

“Unfortunately, the burnout numbers we have been seeing have been steadily rising since May 2020 and are likely to have a massive negative impact on businesses,” said Dr Sahar Yousef, Cognitive Neuroscientist, UC Berkeley.

“Our research suggests that unless organizations take a proactive approach, productivity is projected to decrease in 2021.”

According to Yousef, the two leading causes of burnout are longer workdays and little separation between work and home.

“There are strategies and systemic solutions to address these culprits,” Yousef said. “For a full recovery, leaders need to be proactive and data-driven about assessing if they have a burnout problem, addressing the root causes contributing to it, and improving how work gets done.”

Work about work

Despite the proliferation in digital tools and processes, knowledge workers are more bogged down in “work about work” than ever, according to the study.

“2020 fundamentally disrupted the modern workplace in a way that no technological innovation ever has,” the report states. “Yet despite the initial chaos, and resulting acceleration of digital transformation initiatives, we’re still burdened by the legacy of the ‘old way’—work about work.”

Meaningful work is often relegated to the sidelines as coordination jobs consume as much as 60 per cent of a knowledge workers day, according to the report. And while the move to remote may have lessened physical interactions, unnecessary meetings now cost knowledge workers an average of 157 hours in productivity a year.

Australian knowledge workers also reported higher than average unnecessary meetings and more time spent on duplicate work.

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