Workism: the dark side of the remote work revolution

Has working remotely helped or hindered your work-life balance? Many of us assumed the former, yet the latter turned out to be true. And as the line between “me” and “my job” becomes more blurred, “workism” starts to take hold.

Did you breathe a sigh of relief when asked to work from home in early 2020? After all, setting up a desk in the kitchen was little more than a minor inconvenience compared to the risks of traveling to and from the office. And it was only going to be for a few weeks… maybe two months, right?

Remote work was somewhat romanticized before the pandemic. The thought of it conjured images of lunchtime runs, a better work-life balance, and delicious dinners prepared during the time you would have spent commuting.

It was a lifestyle opportunity many of us craved… and then we got it.

The reality of remote work in 2020 and 2021 was different to the ideal. Millions of workers suddenly found themselves putting in longer hours, balancing more responsibilities, and managing more distractions. They could wear leisure clothes, sure — but they had no leisure.

And they were the lucky ones!

For those who were unemployed or on furlough, lockdown days stretched out with nothing to fill them. Without a reason to get up in the morning, some of us didn’t. It was almost as though taking our job away took something of ourselves, as well.


Remote work and personal/professional identity

Meaning and purpose in our work is the key to happiness — that’s a message we’ve received, and helped promote, for years and years. So when we work longer hours remotely — as we have, during lockdown — is that because we love what we do and are fulfilled by it? Or is some other, darker, element at play?

And what if work is all we have to do — when the rest of “normal life” is taken away? Are we still driven by passion and commitment? Or are we in fact seeking structure, meaning, and a way to feel impactful in a world turned upside down?

And what about when you stop work (for furlough, or redundancy, or retirement) and find your identity was synonymous with your job, where does your sense of self come from then? That’s a question with relevance way beyond the current pandemic situation — and one that can’t be tackled in one blog post alone!

So here’s the question: were we wrong about the advantages remote work could bring? No. And we certainly weren’t wrong to want that lifestyle either. It’s just that now we’ve seen the less desirable impacts of the remote work revolution as well. Because when we identify ourselves only through work, we can create a sinister space where problems creep in.


The darker side to remote working

We’re not here to slam remote work. After all, 97% of remote workers would recommend it to other people — and, at its best, all the benefits are there for the taking.

Remote work has a dark underbelly though. And there you’ll find an increased risk of burnout, stress, lack of professional support, and an ever-diminishing distance and delineation between work and home life.

This isn’t good news for organizations either. The negative impacts of remote work can lead to disengagement and reduced productivity. An employee who lives and breathes their job may sound good on paper, but “workism” is a growing trend we all have a responsibility to stub out.

Understanding “workism” and the risks it carries

“Workism” is the belief that work is (and should be) central to our identity. It describes our hope to find meaning, fulfillment, and a sense of community through paid employment. Yes, there are significant overlaps with being a “workaholic” or a “dedicated employee” — but workism is an altogether different beast.

When our identity is dependent on work, we can start to measure our worth by the amount we’re paid, the projects we’ve delivered, or even simply the hours we put in.

That’s where we see “workism” exacerbated from working at home. And, in particular, during the pandemic. With our other, personal, identities taken away — “I’m part of a weekend soccer team”, “I love my Thursday evening pottery class” — workism is able to thrive.

And this puts work-life balance in a precarious situation. Pushing the limits of “healthy dedication” can feel virtuous when professional achievements define who we are. But flirting with burnout like this can be incredibly damaging for the individual, as well as their team.

Workism warning signs

So what are the signs of workism? How do we know when we’re straying from a healthy pride in our achievements into a harmful approach to our self-image?

How we approach out-of-hours working is one clear measure. We’ve all been guilty of checking our emails at night or taking an hour over the weekend to finish an essential task. But why do we do it?

Let’s say you receive an email from a teammate at 11pm or over a weekend. What does that say to you? “Wow, they are really dedicated to their role” or “They have an unrealistic or poorly-managed workload”? Is that a badge of honor or a cause for concern?

And if you were to reply to that email… what would that say about you?

It’s easy to be drawn into an exchange. But we need to question what that behavior exemplifies to the team. How would it feel to model setting boundaries around your time, only replying during office hours?

If you’re uncomfortable leaving that email until you’re back “at your desk”, you could be suffering from workism — and you could be modeling it to your team.

When workism is cultural

Organizational culture can also send clear messages about how much workism is expected.

Presenteeism — where staff put their own health at risk to avoid taking time off work — harms both the company and those who work to advance it. It can lead to longer, less successful recovery from physical or mental illness; with minor issues becoming serious conditions.

This risk is magnified when working remotely, too. Emerging health issues can fly under the radar when employees are physically disconnected from their managers and HR. Would your teams come to you if they worried about their health?

We should also question company targets and performance expectations. Your business wouldn’t be the only one doubling down to make up for COVID-related losses. But at what cost to your workforce?

Do you have adequate resources? Or are you expecting staff to increase their working hours to cope with ever-increasing demands? Crucially, what do you reward and celebrate? Is your “best” salesperson also the one who looks most at risk of burning out?

Stretch and challenge can be valuable for everyone. But we need to notice when we’ve taken it too far — and when workism is what’s being encouraged.

Tackling workism: promoting a healthy commitment to work-life balance

Leaders have a responsibility for the wellbeing of their teams and their own wellbeing as well. The two are interlinked — model healthy behaviors and approaches to work, and those who work with and for you should follow suit.

If you’re worried about workism — for yourself, a colleague, or both — then here’s how to gain back control:

Start the conversation

There’s still a lot of fear wrapped up in “not being enough” at work.

Some employees may not feel ready to speak up when they’re stressed out. So that’s a good place to start creating change.

Firstly, we need to normalize the discussion of what’s a good amount of stress and what’s simply too much. What are your limits? How are they manifested in your approach to work-life balance? What are you, and aren’t you, willing to do when everyone needs to buckle down?

Saying to your team (and yourself!) “I’m happy to log back on and do some extra hours once the kids are in bed/once I’ve done my yoga class/once I’ve practiced guitar for an hour” is fine. It’s great actually. Because not only does it show commitment when it’s needed, it also reminds everyone that other things matter — that work doesn’t define who you are 100% of the time.

Ask your colleagues what flexibility looks like to them, then help them protect that “me time”. Sometimes, we all have to work longer hours to get something done. But that sometimes should never be always. And it should be done in a way that works for everyone too.


Say “no” on someone else’s behalf

Leaders also play an essential ‘gatekeeper’ role for their teams. Try saying “no” to unreasonable demands on other people’s time and see what happens. Chances are, the work will still get done — other people in the team may offer to help out, or maybe the client/company realizes they were asking for too much.

Advocating on your teams’ behalf is a tangible sign that we prioritize their welfare. And it makes it easier for them to advocate for themselves as well.

Talk about what’s happening outside of work

How much do you know about your teammates outside of their job title? Now that life is (hopefully) opening back up again, it’s the perfect time to find out more about who you work with — what they are looking forward to in 2022; what passions and interests do they have alongside their career.

Creating space for chat of this kind during work hours reminds everyone that life does exist beyond your email inbox. It might just be the reminder you need, too.


Don’t pick up where others leave off

If you’re successful with the above, you should find your employees relaxing and letting go of the need to be “always on”. But here’s the clincher: you are not then expected to fill in the gaps.

Resist the urge to lighten someone else’s load by adding to yours. Doing so will, at best, undermine your hard work in modeling a healthy remote work-life balance. At worst, you could open yourself up to workism and its dangers.

The last year and half may have encouraged unhealthy behaviors and damaging expectations. But we can overcome workism together, for the sake of everyone’s mental health and wellbeing.

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