Working remotely has many benefits and is an increasingly popular work mode.
You don’t have office overhead, you set your own hours or workload, and you can access talent from anywhere with an Internet connection.
A virtual assistant is a key asset when your business is remote-based, but did you know there are still high levels of burnout among remote workers? In fact, studies have found that, due to a number of reasons, remote workers are prime candidates for burnout.
Virtual assistant exhaustion is a real thing and it can not only hurt the VA, but the productivity of the business as well. It’s easy to forget this when you’re not seeing someone in person each day, so consider a few steps to balance the workload.
Balancing virtual assistant workload
First, when you consider a definition of workload, what comes to mind? For many people, it’s the actual list of tasks that a person has to get done. However, there’s more to workload than physical tasks.
Lately, more and more people have been shedding light on mental workload, especially as it applies to both work and home life (here’s an interesting piece on how women tend to shoulder a huge chunk of the mental workload in families).
The thing is, it’s not just the actual physical workload that leads to burnout, it’s the emotional labor or mental workload too. In fact, a huge portion of mental exhaustion can be attributed to this mental labor.
What might this look like in a remote setting for a virtual assistant? Well, consider every email, every quick ping on Slack, or every “can you quickly look this over” or “what do you think?” request. Think about when those are happening — are they restricted to work hours, or is the virtual assistant getting messages in evenings or weekends?
Second, when those messages are happening during work hours, is the virtual assistant expected to respond right away? Interruptions such as Slack pings divide our attention and take it away from the task we were currently working on. On the face of it, this might not seem like a big deal, but studies show that disruptions to our work create a mind-fatigue that contributes to burnout.
Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work, provides strategies for focusing on cognitively demanding tasks without being forced to divide attention. The thing is, while multitasking has been previously lauded, it’s unlikely that anyone is actually doing it. It’s more likely that they are serial tasking — switching quickly between each task — and this is adding strain to the brain. The shift between tasks is not as quick as you may imagine — the natural lag-time of your brain means that it takes up to 40% more time to serial task than single-tasking.
Phew, so it’s possible that how we set up remote work processes or expectations can contribute to burnout. This means that we can also set them up to reduce exhaustion. Here are some tips for balancing the virtual assistant workload (or your own as well!):
Have an established routine
We all have different work styles, but if your preferred method can be described as “chaotic,” then that’s a recipe for burnout, both for yourself and those around you. Chaos tends to mean a lot of random interruptions, or perhaps even misplaced priorities.
Established routines, including documented procedures, allow people to get on with work and feel that they’re actually accomplishing something. It also allows them to do some planning based on the idea that they already know what the day looks like.
For many remote workers, a routine helps them to get into the groove with remote work. They can set up routines in their personal life that help to get them into the mindset for work. For example, if you have regular work hours, your virtual assistant might plan to take a fitness class before work that gets them pumped for the day.
The idea of having a hard stop for work is also important. Usually, there are far more tasks that could be done than hours available in the day. It’s important that this is an accepted notion and that your team members aren’t working into their personal time, feeling that things “have” to be done.
Be clear about priorities
This really follows on from that last point — you probably do have more tasks than hours available, so be very clear about setting priorities. If everything is considered “high priority,” then you will very quickly have an exhausted virtual assistant who thinks it all must be done right now.
This means communicating well with the virtual assistant and ensuring that you both have realistic expectations about what daily workload should look like.
Priorities help to focus on quality over quantity. They allow you or your virtual assistant to check off key items and have that sense of accomplishment. A frequent comment from burnt-out remote workers is that they were “always working, but never done.” There was a focus on quantity, but this didn’t mean they were getting anything of quality or clear importance done.
Sometimes, especially when you don’t see a person face-to-face, it can be easy to fall into a trap of seeing them as some kind of “task machine.” But they’re human. You’re not hiring a robot, you’re hiring a person to put that human touch on important tasks for your business.
Have (and help to keep) clear boundaries
Have you ever come across this scenario while working from home? Relatives or friends think that you should always be free when they want to see you because you’re “not really at work.” This very quickly becomes frustrating when you’re trying to get things done!
As much as this might annoy you, flip it around the other way and you have a common scenario that many virtual assistants face. The old “you can always be at work because it’s as easy as sending a text message” scene.
The problem is, this is a slippery slope. As soon as you start to get into a habit of messaging at any time, or interrupting evenings and weekends, it becomes one of the norms you have set for your business.
People often tout the benefit of flexibility as a key part of remote work, but there’s a big difference between flexibility and being too pliant. That email sent at 6pm saying “hey, can you quickly check this over?” is potentially interrupting a family dinner or other outside-of-work activity. If you put yourself in the position of the receiver, they probably feel obligated to respond because it came from their boss. What precedent is now being set?
Remote work doesn’t mean that people should be available 24/7, and that’s a dangerous expectation to set. It quickly turns into extended days and someone sitting in their bed at 11pm replying to messages. How soon do you think they will burn out?
A key piece of managing remote workload is to set clear boundaries. This can mean work hours and being clear about expectations when it comes to a response to messages. For example, you can make it a policy to avoid sending messages outside of work hours, or you could make it clear that if you’re sending it late, you don’t expect a response until the next business day.
Allow for breaks
We ALL need breaks! Science tells us this is true, yet a crazy number of people aren’t taking vacations and aren’t getting necessary breaks during their work days. Break time helps us to renew our bodies and minds, returning to work refreshed (that goes for you, the business owner too).
Breaks improve our happiness, creativity, and overall physical and mental health. If you think that workload does not allow for breaks, then that workload needs to be re-examined. Some points to consider:
- A “working lunch” is work, not a lunch break!
- If you or your team members are frequently going without breaks, then your workload is potentially unrealistic.
- A “break” where you check and respond to messages isn’t really a break.
- People who take vacations are happier overall than those who don’t!
The bottom line is that breaks are necessary for good physical and mental health, and good health is necessary for good work performance. Workload needs to be arranged to allow for proper breaks and vacations.
Having a balanced workload is essential for the health of yourself, your virtual assistant, and your business overall. Exhaustion and burnout are real threats to the overall success of anyone.
Set and respect clear work boundaries, including when or how communications happen. No one can perform well if they’re expected to be “on” all the time.
When was the last time you or your virtual assistant took a real break? If you can’t remember, there’s a good chance it’s needed in the near future. Make plans to allow for cover and ensure that the virtual assistant knows — breaks are not only okay, they’re expected!
Have you been asking yourself, “What is a virtual assistant exactly?” Or, “Can a virtual assistant really help me?”. Our Ultimate Guide to Virtual Assistants is here to answer those questions and many more. Make sure you read it!