The Magic of Work From Home has Worn Off – Keeping Away from Burnout

Two months ago, it was considered an employee benefit to work from home.  It was something some employers were fully behind; other organizations held the firm thought that everyone needed to be in the office.  Remote working was negotiated when trying to hire a new team member, and something coveted and “dreamy” in others’ standards.

Then, in the blink of an eye, it all turned.  Almost overnight, if employees were able to continue to work at all (for non-essential businesses), it was a must to do it from home.  Corners of dining rooms and closets were cleaned out in order to build makeshift desks, internet plans were beefed up, and the excitement of a commute from bedroom to corner desk down the hall was exhilarating employees.  The “great experiment” was about to begin!

Those first few days were strong – teams shared their tasks completed, funny stories of their new four-legged “coworkers” and the robust lunch they had.  A new excitement, collective vision of “we can do this – we can work from home and beat this virus!” had launched across all communities, uniting people together.

Fast forward almost eight weeks.  It’s time to recognize that in the hype of it all, not everyone knew how to set themselves up for full success in the WFH venture; not all employers could have the forethought of having procedures for all situations; and not all people truly enjoy working from home.  It’s time to recognize that working from home can also lead to burnout.  And because this shift from office to home was so sudden, like a light switch, and there are so many other stresses linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s also not a totally fair time to determine whether work from home is right or wrong for both employees and employers.

Regardless, let’s focus on what we can do, right now, to combat burnout.

Although not considered a mental illness, workplace burnout can be considered a mental health issue.  What, really, is it?  There are several very specific, almost clinical in language, definitions of burnout.  I found one, from the Mayo Clinic, that seems to encompass it for me: “a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work.”  It isn’t a happy place to be in normal times, and the pandemic’s added level of uncertainty makes each of us more susceptible to workplace burnout, even from home.

We’re more apt to be exhausted in one or more ways because managing the demands of feeling productive with work in concert with household tasks, childcare challenges, homeschooling children, caring for elderly parents, making the best meals, exercising, grocery shopping that used to be quick but now takes planning in order to get the specific things running scarce, and the list goes on…especially when scrolling through social media at the seemingly “they can do it all” posts and images that we compare to our own situations.  No longer can we shut down our desk at the office at closing time, drive home, and have separation between the two worlds.  How can one not cast self-doubt in the face of all of this?

Check in on yourself.  Are you experiencing a depletion of energy?  Not engaged as much in work?  Feeling like you’re not as productive?  What about physical symptoms such as anxiety, headache, stomach/back problems?  These could be early signs of burnout as well.

There’s quite a bit of research that highlights the importance of drawing lines between our professional and personal lives.  It is all-the-more difficult in WFH situations but is key to resisting burnout.  To do this, find ways to maintain physical and social boundaries for yourself to help your mental state determine between the “home you” and the “work you”.  Put on work clothes for instance, even if they are Friday casual in nature, and maybe even create a “commute” for yourself that involves leaving the house before “arriving at your office” – like walking around the block, or to the nearest park and back.  Bonus is that you’re getting fresh air, too.  No need to be completely serious – these transitions are also a way to invite creativity into your day as well.

Work from home brings heightened levels of pressure to perform, but in this time it is critical to re-evaluate expectations of yourself, and if you’re a manager, of your employees as well.  During the typical workweek in the office, it is likely employees waste two to three hours each day – social interactions in the kitchen, interruptions of “fires” on projects that pop up and the like.  Distractions like that suddenly disappear, so you’re able to accomplish things in a more efficient manner.  Of course, new distractions might appear, like a school Zoom meeting for your child, but if you can include that into your expectations and see it as the substitute for the water-cooler conversation you would have had at the office, the exasperation suddenly is washed away.  The key is, don’t hold yourself to a set of rules that were for the office environment but don’t work in a WFH situation.

Recognize that right now is not the time for busy work, either.  Focus on the most important work and devote your energy to top-priority issues.  The day will be filled with juggling moments, and when the time is available for work, make the most of it.  Work on the things that have impact on the organization to keep it going; complete your part of a group project so others can accomplish theirs; avoid multitasking.  Additionally, WFH can lead to procrastination since either your mind believes you now have “unlimited time”, or the opposite where you weren’t able to “walk away from work”.  However you best focus in on the important parts of your work product – whether you have a task list, make a plan, use a calendar – make sure to do it so that there’s priority in what you spend your energy doing to make it meaningful.  Then, in the last five to ten minutes of your workday, define your top three priorities for the next day in order to give peace of mind for your “home you” to focus on relaxing and enjoying home life.

A few last things about warding off burnout:  remember a big difference between a good day and a bad day is all in how you interpret it.  You get to decide.  Was it growth-oriented, or drag you down?  Choose wisely.  Think about the high moment, what might go better tomorrow, and maybe even a “hero moment” where a coworker or vendor did something that brought you up, or where you yourself found satisfaction in how you went about a task.  Then, power down.  Yes, completely turn off that computer so that it’s just slightly more difficult to do that one additional thing.  Go and be the “home you” until tomorrow!

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