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Why Hybrid Work Is Emotionally Exhausting

A part-remote, part-office schedule has been hailed as the future of work. Yet in this hybrid set-up, some employees have never been so tired.

BBC Worklife

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When Klara was offered a hybrid working arrangement, she thought it would be the best of both worlds. The account manager had initially joined her London-based firm on a full-time office contract, only for successive waves of Covid-19 to force her to work from home. 

Klara’s boss introduced the hybrid policy in September 2021, when UK government guidance recommending home working came to an end: Tuesdays and Thursdays would be home-working days, with the remainder of the week spent in the office during normal contracted hours. 

“Having a permanent hybrid set-up initially came as a relief," says Klara, whose surname is being withheld for job-security concerns. "After years of full-time office work, it felt like I finally had control over my work schedule and busy home life.” 

As the months rolled by, however, the novelty of hybrid work soon gave way to hassle and a jarring one-day-in, one-day-out routine. “I feel settled and focused on the days that I work from home,” says Klara. “But by the evening I dread having to go back in: sitting at my desk for eight hours a day in a noisy office, staring at a screen, readjusting to exactly how it was before Covid.” 

Klara feels she now has two workplaces to maintain – one in the office and one at home. “It involves planning and a stop-start routine: taking my laptop to and from the office every day, and remembering what important things I’ve left where,” she adds. “It’s the psychological shift – the change of setting every day – that’s so tiring; this constant feeling of never being settled, stressed and my productive home working always being disrupted.”  

Emerging data is beginning to back up such anecdotal evidence: many workers report that hybrid is emotionally draining. In a global study by employee engagement platform Tinypulse, more than 80% of people leaders reported that such a set-up was exhausting for employees. Workers, too, reported hybrid was more emotionally taxing than fully remote arrangements – and, concerningly, even full-time office-based work. 

Given many businesses plan on implementing permanent hybrid working models, and that employees by and large want their working weeks spent between home and the office, such figures sound alarm bells. But what is it specifically about hybrid working that is so emotionally exhausting? And how can workers and companies avoid pitfalls so that hybrid actually works?

Getty Constantly switching workplaces - and the planning associated with it - can leave workers drained, research suggests (Credit: Getty)

Constantly switching workplaces - and the planning associated with it - can leave workers drained, research suggests (Credit: Getty)

Why hybrid can be taxing 

As the pandemic dragged on, and workers’ flexible working habits became more ingrained, a full-time return to the office seemed a relic of the past. But while some companies have implemented work-from-anywhere policies, a large swath of businesses have landed on hybrid as the default working model. 

In theory, hybrid offers the best deal for both employer and employee. It combines pre-Covid-19 patterns of office-based working with remote days, in a working schedule that would allow both in-person collaboration and team building, as well as greater flexibility and the opportunity for focused work at home. It seemed a win-win for workers; in one May 2021 study, 83% said they wanted to go hybrid after the pandemic

“There was a feeling that hybrid would be the best of both worlds,” says Elora Voyles, an industrial organisational psychologist and people scientist at Tinypulse, based in California. “For bosses, it means they retain a sense of control and that they can see their workers in person. For employees, it offers more flexibility than full-time in the office and means they can work safely during the pandemic.” 

However, as the novelty of hybrid working has faded, so too has workers’ enthusiasm. “We found that people were less positive about hybrid through 2021 as the year went on,” explains Voyles. “In the spring and summer months, many organisations were really keen to implement it. They brought employees on to a hybrid schedule, but then quickly ran into difficulties.” 

Organisations that had never implemented hybrid before were suddenly making up policies on-the-fly, often without consulting employees. So, as in Klara’s case, part-office, part-home arrangements were thrust onto the workforce. 

“The longer I did hybrid the more I felt it was just an extra hurdle to doing my job: from the commute to knowing that I’d be working elsewhere the next day.” – Klara

Optimism among workers soon gave way to fatigue. In Tinypulse’s survey of 100 global workers, 72% reported exhaustion from working hybrid – nearly double the figures for fully remote employees and also greater than those based fully in the office. Voyles says the small sample size reflects a wider trend; she believes it’s the disruption to employees’ daily routines – and the staccato nature of hybrid – that workers find so tiring. 

“A predictable, consistent routine can help people cope with feelings of stress and uncertainty – especially during a pandemic,” says Voyles. “Hybrid, however, requires frequent changes to those daily habits: workers have to constantly switch things up, so it’s hard to find a routine when your schedule is always in-and-out the office.” 

A familiar routine can act as a well-worn groove that allows flow, but carving out new daily habits – involving a less consistent schedule between workplaces – can chip away at cognitive resources. “Moving to hybrid has the potential to disrupt someone’s home-working routine,” explains Gail Kinman, a chartered psychologist and fellow of the British Psychological Society. “Hybrid practises haven’t become second nature yet, so it takes greater energy, organisation and planning. You have to form new strategies – hot desking, planning commutes – that you wouldn't need if you were fully remote or in-person.” 

Physically carrying work back-and-forth between home and the office may also come with a psychological impact for some. A study found 20% of UK workers reported difficulties switching off from work and feeling ‘always on’; struggling to adapt to hybrid, and the permeable boundaries between home and work, was cited as a major factor. 

“Hybrid practises haven’t become second nature yet, so it takes greater energy, organisation and planning.” – Gail Kinman

Hybrid can also come with a greater risk of digital presenteeism, adds Kinman, compared to fully remote jobs which imply employer trust from the get-go. “If an employer sets up hybrid without trusting their workforce, it can become little more than a token gesture: workers feel pressure to show their boss they’re not taking advantage of home working. That could lead to overwork and burnout, the effects of which can be devastating but take a long time to show up.” 

Getty Companies are still defining hybrid - and experts say avoiding one-size-fits-all policies is key to succeeding (Credit: Getty)

Companies are still defining hybrid - and experts say avoiding one-size-fits-all policies is key to succeeding (Credit: Getty)

Defining hybrid

For some workers, frustrations with hybrid mean they’re gravitating towards jobs that allow them full control over their schedules. 

“I thought hybrid was for me – but splitting my time between home and the workplace was just too disruptive,” says Klara, who is soon to begin a new, fully remote role. “I find the office distracting – you can be bothered at any moment. The longer I did hybrid the more I felt it was just an extra hurdle to doing my job: from the commute to knowing that I’d be working elsewhere the next day. It quickly became a chore.” 

Yet Klara’s experience doesn’t necessarily mean that workers should head back to their office desks five days a week, or seek jobs that are permanently remote. 

Hybrid can still be a perfect harmony for workers – so long as their employer gets it right. “Where the arrangement goes wrong is when it’s a hybrid schedule dictated by a supervisor,” explains Voyles. “Employees end up with a working week they have no control over: it’s like the fixed full-time office schedule of old, which just happens to be in the worker’s home twice a week.” 

Kinman says it comes down to what organisations mean by ‘hybrid’. “It’s a broad definition that can be interpreted in many ways: from going into the office three days a week, to once a month. Hybrid can still be the future of work and represent the best of both worlds – but it still needs refining.”

Hybrid can be successful when managers liaise with staff, likely on an individualised basis, about how the set-up would work best for them. “It’s both employer and employee who need to set boundaries,” says Voyles. “But there needs to be autonomy for the worker to self-manage their schedule – flexibility needs to be dictated by the individual, not the boss.” 

Furthermore, hybrid staff could be aided by more robust remote-working set-ups, helping to ease the psychological shift between the office and home. “Hybrid is a state of mind,” says Kinman. “It’s the idea that we seamlessly move and work from setting to setting. Therefore, mechanisms have to be in place to ensure employees have the right home-working software and tools.” 

Kinman says that we’re in the midst of a great working experiment: she predicts that the teething problems of hybrid will last for years. “Currently, we know more about full-time remote working through a health crisis than we do about hybrid working in the long-term,” she adds. 

However, if workers are allowed a degree of choice and control over their working patterns, the rewards could pay dividends. “Both people and organisations claim they want hybrid,” says Kinman. “So, there is a great opportunity to change how we work. But it has to go further than the hours bosses set – it has to be a mindset that works for both employer and employee.”

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This post originally appeared on BBC Worklife and was published January 20, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.

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