Dealing with Burnout when Working From Home
Here’s how you can deal with it
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash
In February 2020, as concerns of a global COVID19 pandemic began to rise, many of us lamented the continued reluctance of managers and companies to embrace telecommuting. And now, many of us have been blessed, or cursed, with exactly what we wished for.
Before Covid-19, it was estimated that up to 40% of US workers could theoretically work from home. At that time, employers allowed only about 7% to do so (with some statistics suggesting only half used this benefit). The need for social distancing is transforming today’s workplace and it’s still unclear where we’ll end up. Increased calls to maintain social distance and liability questions have squashed early dreams of getting everyone back into the office.
Whole industries focused on telecommuting are growing. Zoom, a video conferencing platform, has seen its stock rise over 250% this year so far. Using demonstrated productivity and cost savings numbers, consulting groups are forecasting that one quarter to one-third of the US workforce will work from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021.
But for many of us, work from home is not going as we expected.
This isn’t what I asked for!
Unfortunately, the current reality isn’t living up to our work-from-home fantasies. Instead of telecommuting from our couches, relaxing in last night’s t-shirt and our comfy socks, and working fewer hours because we’re more productive, we’re all on edge.
The pandemic is the root cause of it all, of course. We’re stressed over the news, fatality rate updates, finding child care, handling at-risk relatives, and the increasing political polarization. Our baseline stress levels are skyrocketing!
Despite all that, we’re supposed to be doing our jobs, which were already stressful. In the US before the pandemic, 40% of workers felt their job was highly stressful, and 26% often felt burned out.
It’s no wonder we’re beginning to see news agencies report on unprecedented levels of burnout in this country.
The Mayo Clinic defines burnout as follows:
Job Burnout - a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.
I thought this would be my ideal life. Minus the stress and dangers of the pandemic itself, I’m an introverted software engineer who enjoys many aspects of his job. Before all this, my favorite days were when II was able to work from home a few days a week.
Burnout is a regular risk for software engineers. We all experience it at one time or another. Writing software is a demanding combination of creative and technical work. When combined with aggressive schedules it can be completely exhausting. Working from home lets me relax the “social” side of the job and get more done on my own schedule. It’s fantastic. After telework became mandatory for me four months ago, however, fighting burnout has still been a constant struggle. And the extroverts in my circles are straight-up losing their minds.
There are several tried and tested strategies for relieving burnout symptoms. Most were difficult but workable before the pandemic:
- Reduce your stress levels outside of and at work (is there a difference any more?)
- Carve out time for relaxing or mindful activities like Tai Chi, Yoga, video games, and meditation (carve out what time? Now I home school my kid at odd hours during the day and work through the night to make up the time)
- Disconnect from your work when you’re not at work (I’m always at work now)
- Use your commute as a divide between work and home (what is a “commute”?)
- Take a vacation (depending on where you live, this is either highly restricted or downright impossible)
- Seek support from loved ones and professionals (Seek how? Telephone? Power up your work computer again for a video chat?)
Much of this is dependent on being able to separate the “real you” from the “work you”. But when your work invades your personal sanctuary, how separate can you be? Many of us are working on the personal computers that we use during our downtime, using our personal phones for work, and converting our living areas into office space. On top of it we … and our management … are flexing our schedules to fit the new world around us. We now find ourselves working any and all hours of the day and night.
We can’t disconnect. Work from home? More like Home is Work.
Here’s how I’m coping:
A lot of the traditional ways of dealing with burnout just aren’t viable now. We’re online 24/7 and live where we work now. Here are a few key strategies that I’m employing to de-stress and claw back some balance.
1: Make time for you
Decide that your mental well-being is a priority, and don’t be ashamed to tell people. We live in a culture that believes that the number of hours that we work is important. While it may not be possible to cut down on your total hours, it has become far more acceptable to carve out time for yourself. Trust me, when you tell someone, “I’m blocking out some time for myself,” they’re more likely to be envious than upset.
I’ve found that a great time for this is the lunch hour. It’s reasonable for people to eat out of the office. Just extend that time a little and make it personal time. Block it out on your calendar so you have uninterrupted “you” time in the middle of your workday.
The same is true with family. It might be tough to find that time for yourself with chores and kids and other responsibilities, but we need to have that talk with the people in our lives. Encourage them to take some time as well. Maybe you can find thirty minutes in the evening where you all disperse and do your own thing with no interruptions. Though this might need to wait until after the kids to go to bed.
2: Separate your office space
It’s still important to disconnect from work as much as possible. We’re living in the worst-case scenario where you can walk through your home and remember that tough meeting you had on the couch and then that annoying phone call you took from bed. Choose one area of your home as your office space and let the rest of the house continue to be your sanctuary. This doesn’t need to be a separate room. Set aside even one side of your couch or a specific chair as your “office space”. Then, avoid your office space when you’re not working. If you have to “go back to work” later in the evening, don’t bring work to your living area… go back to your office space. Create that separation.
3. Add in a “commute”
Another tried and true method of disconnecting used to be the commute. It was a psychological break between our home and workspaces. Add it back in.
I’m not suggesting you go get in the car and circle the block for twenty minutes, but having something act as a psychological division between work and home is powerful. Before you start work, you could walk around the block, and walk around it the other way when you’re done. Or have a routine at the beginning of the workday like making and setting out your breakfast a certain way before you go get online. At the end of the day, you could make a routine of putting away and organizing your work equipment. For those of you in the mindfulness crowd, try beginning and ending the day with an app-based meditation. Once you get in a habit, the ritual will help your mind transition in and out of “working” and “not working”.
4: Recharge how YOU recharge
Watch TV, play video games, have a beer on the porch, people watch the neighbors walking by on the sidewalk, invite these neighbors to the front steps for a quick socially distanced chat.
Everyone has their own way of recharging, and we each need to find that way for ourselves and honor it. How you gain energy may be driven by whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert. You may get charged up by checking off small tasks on a list. Maybe it’s through conversation. Find your method and embrace it. It’s more important now than ever.
I have written articles about the benefits of cardio and strength workouts, but any activity is better than none. Exercise is important to our physical and mental wellbeing. Working from home, you can find time for quick breaks that might not have been available at the office. Take a quick walk up and down the stairs or around the block between meetings. Do some pushups and planks after (or during) every video call. Jump rope when you’re brainstorming.
Not only will your body feel better, but the small breaks will recharge your focus levels and let you get back on task.
6: Stay connected with friends and family
We’re social creatures, even us introverts. Work often gave us that social outlet, but now we no longer chat around the water cooler. It’s time to reconnect with our family and friends. In my circle, we use both low tech and high tech solutions.
Physical meetups: About once a week we invite a couple of people over to sit on the porch and hang out (everyone safely distanced from each other). It’s easy to share a drink or even a meal this way at whatever level of distancing you and your local government find appropriate.
Virtual meetups: Our family has started using Marco Polo (Android / IOS) to send video messages to each other. The kids and grandparents especially love this. Among distant friends, video chats have become far more normal. It’s also nice to just call someone up that you haven’t seen in a while. Try out any or all of the popular platforms (Zoom, Hangouts, Facetime, Duo, etc) and you’ll feel refreshed and more connected.
7: Add some variety to your life
Try something new. Maybe a new hobby, maybe just a new take-out restaurant. Try to do something different every week if you can. When every day is identical to the one before it, it’s easy to feel like you’re stuck in a rut. So get out of that rut!
Even simple activities can do wonders to differentiate one week from another. Try out archery at an outdoor range. Go for a hike somewhere new. Do an architecture tour. Order some food from that restaurant you’ve always meant to try.
Anything can break up a routine. If you have some time or vacation days to use up, why not try camping? Or better yet, glamping! Vacations can still be had if you get creative.
8: Seek help if you need it
Just because you can’t go sit on the proverbial couch doesn’t mean professional help is off the table. Depression was often considered an “epidemic” before the pandemic, and now we’ve entered a perfect storm. Consider professional coaching as an option to attain your goals, while minimizing your stress levels.
I’ve been to a therapist during tough times in my life, and I got a lot more out of it than I ever expected was possible. If you’ve gone past burnout and into depression, don’t get stuck trying to just “get by”. Try some researched coping strategies, reach out to get a referral, and by all means, if you’re thinking of any kind of self-harm, ask for help and talk to someone.
You may not be able to do all the things on this list, but I hope you can incorporate at least one or two of these ideas into your daily life. Let me know in the comments if you’ve got other great tips for dealing with burnout in this stressful time! Signing off here with a physically-distanced “mellow greeting” to you:
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