3 Tips to Avoid WFH Burnout

3 Tips to Avoid WFH Burnout

by Laura M. Giurge and Vanessa K. Bohns

Millions around the globe have made a sudden transition to remote work amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Not surprisingly, this has some employers concerned about maintaining employee productivity. But what they really should be concerned about in this unprecedented situation is a longer-term risk: employee burnout.

The risk is substantial. The lines between work and non-work are blurring in new and unusual ways, and many employees who are working remotely for the first time are likely to struggle to preserve healthy boundaries between their professional and personal lives. To signal their loyalty, devotion, and productivity, they may feel they have to work all the time. Afternoons will blend with evenings; weekdays will blend with weekends; and little sense of time off will remain. It’s possible that some employees may be asked to continue working remotely for several months.

Lots of research suggests that drawing lines between our professional and personal lives is crucial, especially for our mental health. But it’s difficult, even in the best of circumstances. In no small measure, that’s because the knowledge economy has radically transformed what it means to be an “ideal worker.”

Our research has shown that workers often unintentionally make it hard for their supervisors, colleagues, and employees to maintain boundaries. One way they do so is by sending work emails outside office hours. In five studies involving more than 2,000 working adults, we found that senders of after-hours work emails underestimate how compelled receivers feel to respond right away, even when such emails are not urgent.

Covid-19 might amplify these pressures. Even for employees who have a natural preference to separate their work and personal lives, the current circumstances may not allow them to do so. Many schools are closed, and daycare may no longer be an option, placing additional burdens on working parents or low-income workers. Even companies that already encourage employees to work from home are likely to have some trouble supporting employees who face the many challenges of working at home in the presence of their families.

So how can employees continue to compartmentalize their work and non-work lives, given the extraordinary situation that so many of us are in today? How can we “leave our work at the door” if we are no longer going out the door? What can employers, managers, and coworkers do to help one another cope?

Based on our research and the wider academic literature, here are some recommendations:

Maintain physical and social boundaries

In a classic paper, Blake Ashforth, of Arizona State University, described the ways in which people demarcate the transition from work to non-work roles via “boundary-crossing activities.” Putting on your work clothes, commuting from home to work—these are physical and social indicators that something has changed. You’ve transitioned from “home you” to “work you.”

Try to maintain these boundaries when working remotely. In the short-term, it may be a welcome change not to have to catch an early train to work, or to be able to spend all day in your pajamas—but both of those things are boundary-crossing activities that can do you good, so don’t abandon them altogether. Put on your work clothes every morning—casual Friday is fine, of course, but get yourself ready nonetheless. And consider replacing your morning commute with a walk to a nearby park, or even just around your apartment, before sitting down to work. Some workers have already come up with creative and lighthearted ways to maintain their usual work routines.

Maintain temporal boundaries as much as possible

Maintaining temporal boundaries is critical for well-being and work engagement. This is particularly true when so many employees—and/or their colleagues—are now facing the challenge of integrating childcare or elder-care responsibilities during regular work hours. It’s challenging even for employees without children or other family responsibilities, thanks to the mobile devices that keep our work with us at all times.

Sticking to a 9-to-5 schedule may prove unrealistic. Employees need to find work-time budgets that function best for them. They also need be conscious and respectful that others might work at different times than they do. For some it might be a child’s nap, for others it might be when their partner is cooking dinner. Employees with or without children can create intentional work-time budgets by adding an “out of office” reply during certain hours of the day to focus on work. A less-extreme reply might be to just let others know that you might be slower than usual in responding, decreasing response expectations for others and yourself.

Creating clear temporal boundaries often depends on the ability to coordinate ones’ time with others. This calls for leaders to aid employees in structuring, coordinating, and managing the pace of work. This might mean regularly holding virtual check-in virtual meetings with employees, or providing them with tools to create virtual coffee or workspaces. Through this disruption, keeping a sense of normality is key.

Focus on your most important work

This is not the time for busy work. Workers should be devoting their energy to top-priority issues.

While working from home, employees often feel compelled to project the appearance of productivity, but this can lead them to work on tasks that are more immediate instead of more important—a tendency that research suggests is counterproductive in the long run, even if it benefits productivity in the short run. Employees, particularly those facing increased workloads as they juggle family and work tasks, should pay attention to prioritizing important work.

Working all the time, even on your most important tasks, isn’t the answer. According to some estimates, the average knowledge worker is only productive on average three hours every day, and these hours should be free of interruptions or multitasking. Even before Covid-19, employees found it difficult to carve out three continuous hours to focus on their core work tasks. With work and family boundaries being removed, employees’ time has never been more fragmented.

Employees who feel “on” all the time are at a higher risk of burnout when working from home than if they were going to the office as usual. In the long-term, trying to squeeze in work and email responses whenever we have a few minutes to do so —during nap time, on the weekend, or by pausing a movie in the evening—is not only counterproductive but also detrimental to our well-being. We all need to find new ways—and help others do the same—to carve out non-work time and mental space.

These are just a few recommendations that can help workers maintain boundaries between their work and their personal life and thereby avoid burnout in the long run. Employees will need the flexibility to experiment with how to make their circumstances work for them in these unpredictable times.


Science-backed tips for settling into your new work-from-home routine

Science-backed tips for settling into your new work-from-home routine

This may be the “new normal,” but that doesn’t mean the transition to social distancing or remote work is easy. These techniques can help.

For most people, the novelty of working remotely is wearing off. For a few days, it might have been nice to wake up, forego some of your normal morning routine, and sit in your PJs all day (or to engage in the “business on top, party on the bottom” style required to get through Zoom meetings).

But if you’re working from home, it’s time to recognize that this is the new normal for at least the next couple of months. And while it’s good to remember that remote work is a privilege, it can still be a challenging transition, especially if you are contending with tight spaces and additional distractions. Luckily there are some science-backed tips that can help you adjust:

First, you need to develop a set of actual habits. Research on habits demonstrates a simple two-part formula: consistent mapping and repetition. That is, whenever you perform a behavior repeatedly in an environment, you will ultimately be able to remember what you are supposed to do rather than having to think about it.

That means that you need to develop some consistency to your work routine at home. That doesn’t mean that your routine needs to be the same as it was when you were going into the office. If you have children at home, then you will have to work around their schedule. But, creating a schedule for you and for them will help everyone (even infants and toddlers) to be able to predict how the day is going to go.

Creating habits means picking a particular place you are going to use as a workspace and sticking with it. One advantage to having a dedicated workspace is that it becomes associated with doing work, so that eventually you sit at the workspace and you develop a mindset to be at work.

The next thing you want to do is to create an attitude of work from the outside in. A lot of times, we assume that it is important to feel that something is the right thing to do before we do it. But, one way that any set of behaviors becomes comfortable is by doing them.

That means that it is time to go back to dressing professionally again. Shower, shave, take care of your skin and face. Do all of the things that you would do if you were going to be around an office full of people—even if the only one who sees you is your pet. That will make you feel more like you’re being professional.

It is hard to get much movement in when you work from home. Maybe you have a pet or toddler to chase around. Unlike your typical workplace, though, you probably don’t need to walk the hallways to get to a printer or the conference room. It is all in one spot.

Social distancing doesn’t mean never moving. If you live in a place where you can keep your physical distance while still going outside, then make sure you run, walk, or otherwise exercise. If you have an old piece of exercise equipment gathering dust, then break it out. Or find some exercise videos online and follow along. Research suggests that regular exercise has benefits for your ability to think and also boosts your mood.

If you’re used to working among a group of people, it can be hard to suddenly find yourself alone. The effects of goal contagion leads you to pursue the same goals as the people around you. If you’re around people who are working, it helps to keep you on task.

Get in touch with some of your coworkers. Meet up on Zoom, Skype, or your favorite hangout tool and just work. Keep them up on your monitor so that you can see everyone else doing what they do. The aim isn’t to snoop into other people’s lives— it’s just to be around other people trying to get some work done. Not only can that help you concentrate, it might also make you feel a little less alone.


Four Types of Depression

Four Types of Depression

On situational, biological, psychological, and existential depression.

Virtually everyone has some experience with depression; however, the term “depression” has so many different meanings that confusion and invalidation often result when laypersons talk about their experiences. To address this problem, I have created a simple schema, based on my work with patients and my own personal experiences, to help people understand each other better when talking about depression.

In this article, I describe four different types of depression: situational, biological, psychological, and existential. While this schema does not represent a formal diagnostic model, I believe it can be helpful, especially for laypersons, to better communicate what they’re experiencing so they can get the help and validation they most need.

Type 1: Situational Depression

Are you feeling isolated and depressed from the COVID-19 quarantines? Have you ever cried for a week and struggled to get out of bed after a breakup? Did you ever have brief thoughts of suicide after getting rejected from a college you applied to?

Four Types of Depression

If you’ve ever experienced intense sadness in response to these or similar events, congratulations: You are a warm-blooded human being! You’ve also experienced what I call situational depression.
As humans, it is completely normal to feel sadness, even for extended periods, in response to negative events and isolating situations.

There aren’t many people who, upon losing their jobs or a loved one, are able to feel unperturbed. In fact, not only do I believe there is nothing wrong with experiencing situational depression, it is probably abnormal to not feel depressed in such cases. However, when these feelings do not abate after a few weeks, or when thoughts of suicide persist, it is a sign that one’s depression is better explained by one of the other types below.

In my experience, situational depression is nearly universal within the human condition, which means that if this is something you are currently experiencing, you have company… and a lot of potential support. Unfortunately, however, since this type of depression is so common, many people consider themselves experts on the subject and feel emboldened to give unsolicited advice to anyone they hear is struggling with “depression.”

Much of the time, the well-intended advice provided by those who have only experienced situational depression is not only vague and unhelpful but sometimes it can actually make a person feel more depressed. When friends and family members say things like, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself and move on,” or “So many people have it much worse than you!” individuals with more severe forms of depression are likely to feel worse, not better. In lieu of statements like these, depressed individuals often prefer that a loved one follows the advice from the 12-step tradition: “Don’t just do something; sit there.”

Type 2: Biological Depression

For anyone who is skeptical that depression is associated with marked neurological changes, Dr. Daniel Amen’s TED Talk about the depressed brain is a must-watch. With biological depression, an individual’s depressive symptoms start with an imbalance in any of the neurotransmitters (like serotonin and norepinephrine) or hormones (like estrogen, progesterone, and thyroxine) that affect our mood and physiology.

Four Types of Depression

In some cases, changes in neurotransmitters and hormones can lead directly to feelings of despair and anhedonia. In other cases, biochemical changes simply create a physiological state, as with hypothyroidism, that makes it impossible for people to achieve their goals. Here, a disruption in physiology creates a syndrome of low arousal, marked by persistent fatigue, low metabolism, poor concentration, and cognitive slowing (Gold et al., 1981; Longo et al., 2011).

This syndrome of low arousal itself is not depression: It simply makes the activities of daily living (ADLs) and the achievement of one’s goals much more difficult. However, as failures begin to mount, negative thinking patterns and low self-esteem often follow, making depression an indirect consequence of these biochemical changes.

In either case, when biological factors start generating depressive symptoms, a vicious cycle ensues. At this point, something is needed to break the cycle, and this is where medication can be the most helpful—whether it be a traditional antidepressant or treatment for a specific medical condition, like hypothyroidism. As I tell my patients, medication alone will not solve your problems, but it can produce a biological state (usually marked by increased energy and concentration) that will enhance your ability to implement the plans discussed in psychotherapy.

Four Types of Depression

Type 3: Psychological Depression

The third type of depression is called psychological depression, because it is linked to psychological factors, like losing perspective, unrealistic expectations, and negative self-talk.

For most of us, having our hopes and dreams continually crushed by reality is among the worst experiences we can endure. For some, the primary means of coping with this is to deprive themselves of future hopes and dreams, so they are never disappointed again, and this adaptation can work so well that people use it indiscriminately to protect themselves. However, when people overuse this defense mechanism, apathy and hopelessness can result. In my experience, I have found that psychological depression responds equally well to both cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychodynamic therapy, though each approach would address the problem in different ways.

Aside from losing perspective, setting unrealistic expectations, and overusing defense mechanisms, psychological depression can also be a consequence of a dysfunctional romantic relationship. In some cases, separation anxiety keeps people together even after it becomes clear they want different things out of life. In more extreme cases, co-dependencies and abusive dynamics can pose serious threats to one’s physical and emotional well-being. Here, a skilled therapist is needed to determine whether the relationship can be saved or if separation is necessary to alleviate the depressive symptoms of the afflicted person.

Type 4: Existential Depression

While the trigger for situational depression is usually a negative event (e.g., the loss of job), the trigger for existential depression is often, ironically, a positive event: usually, one that someone has been looking forward to for a long time.

How can a positive event trigger a depressive episode? For many of us, we decide in adolescence to dedicate ourselves to a particular goal that we believe will give our lives meaning and provide us with self-actualization. The goals to which we aspire may include lofty career achievements, like becoming a doctor, specific personal desires, like having a child or, possibly, a trip to a fantasized destination.

Regardless of the goal, when we organize our lives around its attainment, we often create an unrealistic expectation that this will yield an unending state of bliss. In some cases, the attainment of these goals does give us the satisfaction we crave, but many times it doesn’t. To spend your entire life pursuing a single goal and then realize that it didn’t bring the joy and meaning that you expected is enough to send most people into an existential crisis.

Four Types of Depression

“Was my entire life a waste of time?” “If achieving this goal didn’t give my life meaning, will it ever have meaning?” “Where do I go from here?” These are the questions asked by someone I would describe as having existential depression, and this type of depression often causes a person to question everything they once believed to be true. Without the meaning they hoped to achieve after the attainment of their goal, the things in life people once enjoyed no longer give them pleasure, and they feel lost without a goal to pursue in the future.

Existential depression can be the trickiest to address: Taking Prozac won’t give those afflicted a new identity or purpose, nor will it help them to discover the meaning of life. Similarly, psychotherapy approaches that focus solely on concrete symptom relief are not very effective either. The symptoms emanating from existential depression come from a deep, nebulous source and don’t respond much to techniques that simply address one’s cognitive errors, irrational thoughts, or lack of engagement in pleasurable activities.

In my experience, existential depression generally requires a combination of strategies, integrated over a long period of time. First, I believe that ongoing psychotherapy with a therapist who is insight-oriented (possibly from a psychodynamic/psychoanalytic orientation) is a good place to start. Therapy should not be pushed at a pace faster than what the patient is willing to go, and it may seem that progress is not being made, even after a couple of years in therapy. However, this type of therapy will provide patients with the safe space necessary to explore new possibilities and identities in an environment that is validating and free of judgment and expectations.

Second, I believe that exploration and participation in groups oriented towards big-picture goals (e.g., religious/spiritual groups, philosophy circles, book clubs, humanitarian organizations, etc.) can be an important adjunct to therapy, helping patients consider different life goals and purposes. Third, I think that experiencing foreign cultures and different ways of life—as Elizabeth Gilbert described in Eat, Pray, Love—can be especially helpful as well.


In conclusion, I should add that in most cases, people don’t simply suffer from just one of the depression types described above, but a combination. Once again, a well-trained therapist can be of great assistance in helping people discern which combination of depression types they suffer from, and in devising a treatment plan according to each person’s assets, limitations, and personality type.

It is my hope that if you are experiencing one of the types of depression described above, you might feel empowered to pursue treatment with a well-trained therapist. I hope this article was poignant enough to convince you that no two people experience depression in the same way, and thus, we should all be careful when assuming that our own experiences with depression automatically apply to everyone we meet who uses the word “depressed” to describe themselves.

Article Link: Four Types of Depression


10 Things Mentally Strong People Do During a Pandemic

10 Things Mentally Strong People Do During a Pandemic

Research reveals how you can reduce your anxiety and stress during COVID-19.

The COVID-19 global pandemic and the systemic ramifications are not only unprecedented but harrowing. We are all adjusting to new realities and grieving the loss of old ones. All of us are simply trying to manage our daily lives taking care of our children or parents, dealing with financial stresses, and adjusting to a new way to live.

All stressors related to COVID-19 may likely result in a myriad of negative feelings such as depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This collective trauma that we are experiencing may feel bleak, but this isn’t the first crisis in our history. For example, research investigations in crises such as the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Ebola, and SARS reveal how individuals respond to pandemics/crises in both adaptive and maladaptive ways.

Researchers have studied how the mentally strong may behave through adverse experiences. This information may help you reduce the likelihood of mental health issues resulting from the COVID-19. Further, the mentally strong and resilient may eventually display post-traumatic growth versus post-traumatic stress symptoms. Post-traumatic growth is understood as positive psychological changes that result from traumatic and highly stressful experiences. Although we are in the middle of this crisis, individuals can rise to a higher level of functioning when the pandemic ends.  

Most of us know the basics: it is vital to create daily habits, to exercise, and to connect with our social supports using virtual meetings and social media. However, here are some suggestions based on evidence of how mentally strong people respond to crises. They may help you not only manage the pandemic but decrease the likelihood of long term mental health issues as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

1. They limit news and media exposure.

Research suggests that there are two main predictors to how well a person will respond in a crisis (like a pandemic). The first is how vulnerable they were in their own lives before the crisis. The second is how much news they consumed during the crisis. Chronic news exposure may create vicarious trauma and PTSD.

Media exposure and the 24/7 news cycle can activate “fight or flight” responses, which can lead to traumatic stress. For example, in a study conducted after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, several hours of media exposure after 9-11 were associated with PTSD and new physical health issues 2-3 years later in participants. In another study conducted during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, daily media exposure was associated with increased distress and poorer functioning over the long term compared to those who limited their news and media intake. Mentally strong people limit their news exposure, choose reliable and responsible print/media, and limit exposure to distressful images shown on the news.

2. They accept their feelings as normal.

Mentally strong individuals accept their feelings as normal because this is a time for both personal trauma and collective trauma. A resilient individual understands that feelings such as fear, anxiety, hopelessness, anger, and sadness are normal because the information is too overwhelming to process at once. The American Psychological Association also accepts this from a diagnostic perspective.

Based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (APA-2013), the diagnosis of “Adjustment Disorder with Anxious or Depressed Mood” is applied to any person who is experiencing symptoms and has had a major life event occur in the last 90 days. Naturally, this applies to all of us because we are amid a pandemic that has changed our lives: whether the loss of a job, homeschooling children, the inability to attend a funeral or see a loved one in a nursing home or otherwise, these reactions are within normal limits.

3. They carefully choose the leaders they follow.

Mentally strong people follow those who display healthy leadership skills and mental health. Garfin et al. (2020) suggested that providers promote calm and rational action and limit watching media and individuals who undermine public health efforts to combat COVID-19. It is both confusing and psychologically harmful to watch leaders who publicly argue and misstate the facts and the research. As a native New Yorker, I find it useful to watch Gov. Andrew Cuomo as he states the facts in a cogent, calm, and thorough manner.

Further, Garfin and colleagues (2020) suggested choosing one or two trusted sources (e.g. Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization) to stay informed of critical updates. Researchers also assert that since there are no drastic changes from hour to hour during a pandemic, choosing a reliable print media source one time per day is suggested. (Baruch Fischoff, Ph.D.)

What Mentally Strong People Do During a PandemicSource: Unsplash
What Mentally Strong People Do During a PandemicSource: Unsplash

4. They limit social media and exposure.

Mentally strong people understand how social media operates and limit their exposure. They know that social media platforms like Facebook are unofficial news channels and deliver news tailored for you (some of it fake) based on your behaviors and preferences gleaned over the last decade. Algorithms are used to give you the news that you will most likely consume, and that the news skewed toward your preferences. This increases bias and the propensity to start rumors that increase distress.

For example, in a study conducted with 3,890 college students under a campus lockdown due to an active shooter, researchers found that regular substantive updates were vital during a crisis. They also stressed the importance of monitoring social media use during a crisis to mitigate exposure to rumors and subsequent distress (Jones et al., 2017).

Maslow Hierarcy of needsSource: istock
Maslow Hierarcy of needsSource: istock

5. They display self- compassion for lack of productivity.

There may be self or societal pressure to “be productive” with the increased time you may have at home. The question to ask yourself is, “Is it reasonable to be productive when we are at war?” It is important to understand that lack of focus, concentration, and overwhelming feelings are common during this time.

Abraham Maslow, Ph.D., used his seminal framework “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” to describe stages that we must pass through to achieve the high levels of self-actualization and creativity. The idea is that we are not able to reach the higher levels of the pyramid without a strong foundation. During a pandemic, most of us are temporarily housed in the first two levels of the pyramid; physiological and safety. Mentally strong people realize that when their physiological and safety needs feel threatened—such as during a pandemic—they don’t put pressure on themselves to produce or achieve.

6. They focus on facts.

Mentally strong individuals are acutely aware of when their emotions are “getting the best of them.” According to Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), we all have three states of mind: an emotional mind, a rational mind, and a wise mind. Our emotional mind is where emotional statements rule; the rational mind, where facts and logic prevail; and our wise mind is a blend between the two. Being emotional is natural during times of crisis, but consciously moving to a rational mind by listing facts and logic can decrease unnecessary negative states. For example, if someone is catastrophizing—i.e., “I am going to catch COVID-19 and die”—a rational mind approach would list the statistics and the evidence of the low percentage of individuals who die from COVID-19. Other rational statements may include “I have a low likelihood of contracting the disease because I am following stay-at-home orders, wearing a mask,” etc.

7. They meditate.

The benefits of meditation include anxiety reduction, reduced stress, increased attention span, decreased depression, and improved emotional health and well being. Studies have found that long term meditators are able to return to baseline quicker (state of calm) versus non-meditators after exposure to stressful stimuli.

8. They limit toxic people.

Mentally strong people understand toxic people and behaviors and limit their time with them. Behaviors such as gossip, chronic lying, being demanding, being self-centered on their needs vs. yours, are quite negative and take a toll on your well being. While you may be able to tolerate some toxicity with friends, family, and colleagues during non-pandemic times, eliminating toxic energy is vital when you are in survival mode during COVID-19.

If it is a toxic family member, think about limiting exposure or using email or text to communicate. As mentally strong people choose leaders to follow, it is just as important to choose to spend time with loved ones who display healthy behaviors and add to your well-being, not detract from it.

9. They focus on self-care.

Mentally strong people consistently use self-care and attempt to be flexible with new routines. As many gyms are closed, they may choose other exercise options while remaining socially distanced, such as running, walking, or biking. They prioritize things that will help them through the pandemic such as raising their vibration with laughter and connecting with their family and friends, coupled with rest and good sleep hygiene.

10. They know their personality needs: Introvert vs. extrovert.

Mentally strong people know themselves and what they need to feel supported. Those that are introverted focus on internal states of being and small gatherings versus external sources of stimulation (a lot of socializing). Introverts often feel drained after heavy socializing and need to recharge their energy in solitude. Conversely, extroverts gain energy from other people and enjoy many social activities. Introverts realize they may have a need to connect virtually, using Facetime, Zoom, Skype, and Google hangouts, but may do so in small groups and less often than extroverts. Both personalities may have different needs to promote well being.


What leader are you? It depends on your parents

What leader are you It depends on your parents

By Christian Jarrett

Your parents’ good intentions might have undermined your confidence – but you can do something about it.

You’ve probably noticed how some of your colleagues take to leadership roles like a duck to water. They’re confident telling others what to do, and happy taking on an ever-growing number of responsibilities. It couldn’t be more different for others: bossing around people feels awkward, and a nagging self-doubt shadows every decision.

If you’re in the latter group, you might wonder why the thought of being a leader fills you with dread, and why you find it so hard to even see yourself as a manager.

As with almost any aspect of human nature, some of the answer comes down to your genetically inherited disposition. If your parents were shrinking violets, the odds are increased that you will be too. But that’s far from the whole story. Increasingly, psychologists are realising the important part that early life experiences play. And key here is the way your parents behaved toward you.

If your parents were shrinking violets, the odds are increased that you will be too. But that’s far from the whole story

In particular, if they were overly protective they might have undermined your chances of becoming a future leader. Colloquially, this parenting approach is known as ‘helicopter parenting’ in reference to the idea of hovering nearby whether needed or not.

Your parents likely had good intentions, such as ensuring you didn’t face uncomfortable challenges. Unfortunately this might have had some inadvertent, unhelpful effects, including “making you less confident and less capable of facing difficulties, therefore [leading you to] exhibit poorer leadership skills”, says Dr Judith Locke, a clinical psychologist in private practice and visiting fellow at Queensland University of Technology.

Locke’s research has involved surveying parenting professionals, including psychologists and school counsellors, to establish exactly what they mean by helicopter parenting or overparenting.

Helicopter parents can cause unexpected harm – overparenting signals to children that they’re not trusted to look after themselves, let alone others (Credit: Getty Images)

Her findings suggest this is an approach characterised by a mixture of three factors: being extremely responsive to the child, being extremely undemanding in some contexts, yet being highly demanding in others. For instance, a helicopter parent is likely to be overprotective, overly attentive and believe their child is always right. They will try to do everything for their child (rather than expecting the child to handle it themselves), and might expect their child’s peers and school to bend over backwards to accommodate their child’s needs too. At the same time, this kind of parent will be highly demanding, in the sense of having high expectations for their child’s achievements, overscheduling their child’s time and wanting their child to be their friend and in constant contact.

Supervised into submission

The latest research on how this extreme coddling can stifle leadership skills comes from China. Psychologists surveyed nearly 1,500 teenagers – average age 14 – at 13 schools in Beijing. Yufang Bian at Beijing Normal University and her colleagues assessed the teenagers’ leadership potential comprehensively. First they quizzed the teenagers’ peers, teachers and parents to get a sense of whether they were seen by others as being a good leader. Second, they checked whether the teenagers were actually in any leadership roles, such as being a team leader in a class science group or a president in a student club.

Meanwhile, the teenagers rated how much their parents had been overprotective by agreeing or disagreeing with statements such as ‘My parents supervised my every move growing up’ and ‘My parents often stepped in to solve life problems for me’. The teens also took quizzes measuring their self-esteem and how confident they felt about being a leader.

The more overprotective their parents, the less the teens were perceived as having leadership potential by others, and the less likely they were to actually be in leadership roles

After controlling for the influence of a number of other factors, such as family socioeconomic background and the teenagers’ academic achievements, Bian and her team found a clear pattern. The more overprotective their parents, the less the teens were perceived as having leadership potential by others, and the less likely they were to actually be in leadership roles. Statistically, this link was explained by the fact that the teens with helicopter parents tended to have lower self-esteem, which in turn was associated with being less confident about being a leader.

Teens with lower self-esteem might be tempted to rate their parents unfavourably – but the results are consistent with earlier research (Credit: Alamy)

Bian and her team said their findings support the idea that too much of a good thing can be harmful: “In the same way that a lack of proper parenting harms a child’s development, overparenting, with its restriction of the child’s development of autonomy and problem-solving skills, also has a negative impact on psychosocial development.”

Overparenting may also create this undermining effect because it signals to children that they are not capable of independence and that their parents don’t trust them to look after themselves, let alone others.

Overparenting may also create this undermining effect because it signals to children that they are not capable of independence
It is worth mentioning that these new findings should be interpreted with caution because the observational design of the study means it hasn’t proved that helicopter parenting causes a lack of emerging leadership potential. The research relies on teenagers retrospectively recalling their parents’ behaviour, and it’s possible that teens with lower self-esteem might be tempted to rate their parents unfavourably as a way to explain their current feelings. However, the results are consistent with a causal interpretation and the researchers build on a wealth of earlier research, which has consistently shown the apparent detrimental effects of having overprotective parents, albeit that these studies have also featured an observational design.

For instance, psychologists at Florida State University surveyed nearly 500 undergraduates and found that those who had helicopter parents also tended to be less confident in their own abilities. A different team at Miami University quizzed hundreds of undergraduates and found similar results. Those who described having helicopter parents also tended to have more emotional problems, struggled with making decisions and performed worse in their exams.

Some surveys found those with helicopter parents were less confident in their abilities and struggled with decision-making and exams (Credit: Getty Images)

Your future as a leader

If you run a mile from leadership opportunities and recognise the description of having helicopter parents, you don’t have to accept that you’ll never be a leader or exhibit qualities of one.

First, remember your parents’ approach was likely well intentioned, and you won’t benefit from feeling resentful. You’re in control now and, with dedication and effort, it’s possible to shape your own traits and attitudes at any time of life.

Locke, who is also the author of The Bonsai Child (a parenting book to help parents develop their child’s potential by not overparenting), recommends beginning to take more control over your own life, including being more financially independent if you can, and avoiding the temptation to call your parents each time you have a problem.

Many readers will have parents still wanting to be highly involved in their lives. Work out a way where you manage your own life more and cease to rely on your parents as much – Judith Locke

“Many readers will have parents still wanting to be highly involved in their lives. Work out a way where you manage your own life more and cease to rely on your parents as much,” she says. Of course, these changes on their own won’t transform you into a leader, but they will help you to see yourself as independent and to be more comfortable making autonomous decisions, which will serve you well if and when leadership opportunities arise in your career.

You can also make changes at work, including trying to be more open to criticism, and being proactive in seeking feedback. “My work shows that those who have been overprotected have often been overpraised as a matter of course, and don’t cope as well with constructive criticism,” says Locke. “For you to improve you need to be open to suggestions of what you need to do to progress.”

It won’t happen overnight, but through practising being more independent and taking the time and effort to build your emotional and decision-making skills, you will find that you can slowly build your confidence – and even start to see yourself as a potential boss.