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Optimum Talks Blog

Stop the Stigma | Chapter 8: Working in a Zoombie Culture

by Sandra Boyd + Dr. Bill Howatt
March 3, 2021


The Scenario

It’s been almost a year since we started working remotely. Originally, many employees rallied and did what we had to do to support our company and achieve our organizational goals. We quickly moved from face-to-face interaction to seemingly non-stop video calls.

A year in, and I am exhausted! I work approximately 2.5 additional hours per day and most weekends to keep up with the workload. I find myself on at least four video calls per day. My company was very active socially before the pandemic and has maintained that by booking weekly virtual social events. Our leader insists that we attend these social gatherings, stating that they are important for the culture.

Although I am an extrovert and love to socialize, I resent all these social and internal meetings because I need time to recharge. It is at the point that even one video lunch per week is too much. Lunchtime has become sacred for me and by booking meetings into it, I can no longer go on my daily walk and take time away from my computer.

I don’t want to appear as not a team player, but I have given it my all over the last year and am realizing my work has become my life. By the time I finish my day, I only have enough energy to crash on the couch and fall asleep watching TV. My vacation time was used by taking extra days here and there throughout the last year. I am also not resetting after a weekend, as I end up working to keep up with the workload, allowing little time to myself. I am concerned about my well-being, as well as my team’s. I am zoomed out of virtual meetings and feel that I am on the verge of burnout.

Reactions from a Leadership Lens

In 2019, the World Health Organization finally included burnout in its International Classification of Diseases, describing it as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Burnout is real and being on video calls is harder on us both physically and mentally. Our brains find it more challenging to process nonverbal cues like facial expressions and body language, making it difficult to process information, and therefore exhausting us. According to Bloomberg Business, Canadians are working an additional 2.5 hours per day and additional research by Jennifer Moss showed the following:

89% of respondents said their work-life was getting worse.

85% said their well-being had declined.

56% said their job demands had increased.

To combat overworking, many managers recommend taking an extra-long weekend, using personal days, exercising more, and/or attend training workshops on how to be more resilient. While these are all good suggestions, the issue is that this only puts the onus back on the employee to do more.

Organizations have failed over the last year to recognize this is a systemic issue and if we do not make shifts in policies, meeting protocols/expectations, flexibility and work distribution, organizations risk disengagement, performance issues, and cultures of presenteeism, absenteeism, and burnout. There is no simple answer, but there are a few things leaders can start doing now, such as taking an interest in their employees’ emotional well-being.

Reactions from a Behavioural Science Lens

Before they reach burnout, human beings will go through emotional exhaustion, an emotional state of feeling worn out and drained due to accumulated stress that stems from personal and work life. Some of the early signs are trouble sleeping, irritability, apathy, change in appetite, irrational anger, feeling of dread, and a decrease in motivation.

Employers need to know that in this state they are at risk of burnout, as well as drops in performance such as missing deadlines, increase in sick time, and flight risks, hoping to escape to culture and workloads that are less emotionally draining.

The Takeaways

  • Have check-in conversations: Ask each team member about their situation, the number of hours they work per week, and if they can keep up with their workload. A simple question such as, “If I could take one thing off your plate to support you, what would it be?” can have a profound impact. A proactive support approach permits people to design their flexible work solutions.
  • Revamp your meetings: Cut meetings to 30 or even 15 minutes and provide an upfront email with the agenda and desired outcome. Give participants the choice of video or non-video and record the meeting so that it can be shared afterwards for those who can’t attend. Re-evaluate all internal meetings, thinking critically about why you have them and how they impact the day. Monitor how many internal meetings are happening and make leaders accountable for the number of meetings they hold per week. Lastly, do not book meetings over the lunch hour or in the evenings.
  • Utilize technology: Send out voice recordings with your ideas or requests with a clear purpose and expectations to give people time to process and reply. Messages from the CEO or senior leadership team can be in video clips sent to each employee to be reviewed or listened to when convenient.


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