As the world grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, teleworking emerged not just as a means to maintain health and productivity by minimizing direct contact, but as a potential gateway to redefining work-life balance. The sudden shift to remote work, facilitated by technological advancements, sparked a broad discussion on its impact on productivity and well-being. While the benefits of working from anywhere but the traditional office setting have been recognized, the balance between work freedom and potential challenges such as reduced social interaction and managerial support presents a complex picture. This nuanced landscape sets the stage for a deeper exploration into how autonomy in work-location decisions can shape our work lives and overall sense of fulfillment.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Veterans Health Administration has faced unprecedented challenges, particularly among its behavioral health providers. A landmark study led by Dr. Hyungjin Kim and her colleagues, including Dr. Peter Grau, Dr. Rebecca Sripada, and Dr. Kara Zivin from the University of Michigan, alongside Tony Van, Dr. Linda Takamine, and Jennifer Burgess from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, has brought new insights into these challenges. Their research, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders Reports, examines the relationship between work-location decision autonomy and burnout among behavioral health professionals, revealing findings that could significantly impact future workplace policies.

Utilizing the 2020 Veterans Health Administration Annual All Employee Survey, the team embarked on a methodical examination of how the autonomy in choosing to telework or work onsite influenced the burnout rates among psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers. By categorizing participants based on their teleworking status and preferences before and during the pandemic, the study aimed to uncover the nuances of workplace autonomy and its effects on employee well-being.

“The ability to choose one’s work location can significantly influence burnout from employment,” Dr. Kim emphasizes, pointing out the study’s foundational hypothesis that greater autonomy in work-location decisions is linked to reduced burnout. The research supports this hypothesis, illustrating a significant correlation between autonomy in work location decisions and lower levels of burnout.

Dr. Kim highlights, “Psychologists reported the highest burnout, followed by psychiatrists and social workers. Those who opted to continue working in person experienced less burnout compared to their counterparts who transitioned to teleworking during the pandemic.” This distinction underlines the complex interplay between the freedom to choose one’s work environment and mental health outcomes.

Delving deeper, Dr. Kim adds, “Our findings indicate that providers with more control over their decision to telework or work in person reported lower levels of burnout than those with less autonomy.” This critical insight showcases the importance of empowering healthcare workers with the choice of their work setting as a potential burnout mitigation strategy.

The study offers a groundbreaking perspective on the interplay between autonomy, teleworking, and burnout among healthcare workers. Their findings advocate for a shift towards more flexible work policies, highlighting the potential to enhance the well-being and effectiveness of the healthcare workforce in a post-pandemic era. Concluding their groundbreaking work, Dr. Kim and her colleagues reflect on the broader implications: “Our study not only confirms that behavioral health providers within the VA experienced widespread burnout during the pandemic’s first year but also highlights how autonomy in work-location decisions can significantly impact burnout levels.” The research advocates for the adoption of more flexible work policies, emphasizing the need for a shift towards empowering employees in their work location decisions to enhance the healthcare workforce’s well-being in the post-pandemic landscape.


H. Myra Kim, Peter Grau, Rebecca Sripada, Tony Van, Linda Takamine, Jennifer Burgess, Kara Zivin, “Autonomy in work location decision and burnout in behavioral health providers: Lessons learned from COVID-19,” Journal of Affective Disorders Reports, 2023.