What started as a short-term leave from the office has transformed into an entire workforce transition. Remote work has been on the rise, with a peak of 62% of employed US adults working part or full time from the confines of their home. But remote work isn’t the only thing that has been on the rise… Burnout is hitting an all time high. More than two thirds, or 69%, of employees are experiencing burnout symptoms while working from home, and this influx is impacting both business productivity as well as the overall health of the workforce.
If you think burnout just means being exhausted from your job, think again… Burnout is known to cause a litany of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.
With remote work, which socially isolates people, there is an added component to consider: loneliness. Research demonstrates that while obesity reduces longevity by 20%, drinking by 30%, and smoking by 50%, loneliness takes the cake, reducing life expectancy by a whopping 70%. It’s safe to say that practicing self-awareness and establishing a healthy work from home lifestyle could be what keeps you safe for the long term.
While this data may be difficult to digest, there are strategies to nip remote-work burnout in the bud before it gets too bad. I have outlined three of the main causes of burnout while working from home, along with ways to remediate them so you can get back on track with growing your career.
1. Inability To Disconnect
The alarm goes off and you start checking email in bed. You sit on a conference call through lunch and end up working on a report late into the evening. Your laptop has become an extension of yourself, always by your side. Sound familiar?
All of this connection at home means more hours logged at work. On average, employees have reported working three more hours per day since working remotely due to Covid-19. That 15 hours a week… almost another part-time job. Too much of a good thing can be bad, particularly if it’s your work.
This increase in work hours and shift in setting are causing some pretty profound social and personal struggles. An ASU research paper described the importance of transitioning from “home you” to “work you” as a result of boundary-crossing activities. This means “work you” would put on work clothes, make your coffee and commute to work. Experiencing these physical and social indicators of a change created an established boundary between the two aspects of your life. While it feels cozy and convenient to skip these activities, maintaining these habits is critical for well-being and work engagement.
Preventative Measure: Live As Though You Are In An Office
First, it’s key is to find a balance in your work space at home. Begin by implementing office hours, silencing notifications and activating an out-of-office response outside of predetermined time blocks. This way, no matter if you’re out running an errand, or winding down from the day on the couch, you (and your clients or co-workers) know that your office is closed for business. If possible, create a block of hours that you can consistently work within, and be sure to communicate this up front with staff and customers to avert any surprises.
Next, consider skipping the jammie workdays and put on a nice blouse; data shows that what you wear actually changes the way you think and improves your abstract thinking capabilities. Instead of driving into the office, go for a walk outside while you listen to the podcast or new station you’d typically enjoy while driving to work. This isn’t only good for creating that work-office divide; getting fresh air to the lungs increases oxygen levels in your brain to boost energy and improve concentration and memory. Once you finish your show, enter the front door of your home as though you are walking into your office.
At the end of the day, you need to establish boundaries for yourself and commit to honoring them. When someone tries to push back and schedule a late-night meeting, don’t be afraid to stand in your values: “I am unavailable during this time. How does [insert alternative date(s) and time(s)] work for you?” There is no need to explain yourself and dive into the details; keep it straightforward and simple. These are the hours you work. End of story.
2. Lacking Workplace Inspiration
Are you dragging your feet to hop on conference calls? Has your inbox begun to fill up, while your desire to respond diminishes? Often, when we’re feeling burned out at work, we suddenly want to do everything… except for work.
This isn’t simply an emotional response; the chronic stress that results in burnout actually changes the anatomy and functioning of the brain. These changes overwhelm one’s cognitive skill (ability to think, learn, reason and pay attention) and neuroendocrine systems (which releases serotonin and adrenaline). Living in a heightened state of stress spark our brains to switch into “survival mode,” impairing ambition and responsibility.
Preventative Measure: Take Creative Initiative
When you begin to ignore messages, procrastinate on projects or find yourself avoiding work altogether, take a moment to consider what got you jazzed up about your career in the first place. Ask yourself: What excites you most during the day?
From here, set a plan in place to implement this aspect of your work back into your life. If you loved presenting your work at quarterly meetings, ask to host a virtual session with your team. If you loved researching possible solutions or new products, carve out time to do this. Before you jump on email and get buried in the day-to-day workload, make time for this. Block an hour on your calendar every morning for an “inspiration session” where you work on what you love most completely uninterrupted.
If you aren’t sure what sparks your inspiration at work or where your greatest strengths lie, spend time defining this. When I work with new clients, I often have them take a few personality tests to identify what they do best and see where their natural gifts and talents lie. Check out the following tests:
- Gallup CliftonStrengths assessment: Uncovers your “talent DNA,” or your top strengths, which explains the way you naturally think, feel and behave.
- Myers-Briggs, or 16Personalities: Indicates your psychological preferences in how you perceive the world and make decisions. The results highlight how you work best with others and maintain relationships, and it even provides career paths to consider.
- Enneagram: A personality assessment that identifies your strengths, weaknesses and how you exist while living in a place of strength versus weakness.
You control your career. It’s time to take pride in holding ownership over what you do best, and find joy in doing so.
3. A Supportive Environment Is Missing
Working without others can be a blessing and a curse. You no longer have to deal with co-workers “dropping by your desk to ask a question” or navigating out of lingering conversations in the hallway after a meeting ends. But now, those instances almost feel like a distant dream you miss. Instead, you’re alone, all day long.
If things go south at work, a project budget gets cut, co-workers are laid off or your manager isn’t the best at leading remotely, being socially isolated leads you to suddenly feel as if you have no one to turn to for support. According to Steve Cole, the director of the Social Genomics Core Laboratory at UCLA, losing a sense of community and connection changes a person’s perception of the world, leading one to feel threatened and distrusting of others and activate defense mechanisms.
When you work remotely and a problem arises, you’re alone in the isolation of your home office to cope with the impact and find a solution.
Preventative Measure: Communicate Your Concerns
Without the personal interactions on the office floor, it is more difficult for co-workers to notice subtle shifts in your behavior and address them with you. It is your responsibility to be aware of your behavior and speak to it with others. Concealing your concerns beneath a smile will only make them worse.
If you feel burnt out, communicate this tactfully to your boss or co-workers. And if the thought of this leads you to fear being let go, especially given the rate of layoffs and unemployment, consider addressing it in a forward-thinking tone: “I want to deepen my commitment in this role and would like to discuss with you ways to remain engaged and focused while working from home.” This comes across as though you are fully committed and want to do your best—then you can speak to what is and is not working for you in the current workplace climate.
There is a powerful link between social support in the workplace and reduced levels of burnout among employees. According to a UK study, the most important factor in workplace happiness is positive social relationships with co-workers. Just because you are no longer in the office, doesn’t mean you can’t maintain friendships remotely. Consider putting together a fun group call, or if Zoom fatigue is strong, set up a socially distanced meet-up in a park.
You are working independently, and that now means you are far more responsible for your career, and your health, than before. Begin to build a level of self-awareness around these warning signs of burnout and take preventative measures to stop burnout in its tracks.
You control your career; don’t let it control you.