How to avoid burnout when working from home
Tired, irritable and lacking motivation? You could be suffering from burnout.
We might be working from home but, for many of us, it feels more like we’re living at work. Maintaining a work-life balance is increasingly challenging, and experts say the risk of burnout is on the rise.
With lockdown offering little reprieve from the monotony of the daily grind, here’s everything you need to know about burnout and how to avoid it.
What is burnout?
Burnout is characterised by the World Health Organisation as an “occupational phenomenon” that is the result of chronic workplace stress. So prevalent has corporate burnout become, that in 2019, the condition was included in the WHO’s 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).
“Burnout is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion, which leaves us feeling anxious, stressed out and unable to focus,” says clinical psychologist and leading mindfulness expert Dr Richard Chambers. “It’s caused by the way we approach our work, which makes it a very portable problem.”
Just because many of us are not physically in the office, Richard says it doesn’t mean we’re any less affected by the pressures of the workplace.
“Increasingly we are working in ways that are so driven and hyper-stimulated that we have difficulty switching off," he says. "This is amplified when working from home because there is the added temptation to answer emails at 11pm or to spend that hour you’ve saved on commuting sitting at your computer, rather than doing something positive for your mental health.”
Our brains are like computers and, when the cache gets full, they get sluggish and glitchy and stop running at full capacity. Burnout is similar, Richard says. You have to create a gap in the programming.
What are the signs of burnout?
If you’re tired during the day, easily irritated or no longer getting joy out of what you’re doing, burnout might be to blame.
Richard says some of the early warning signs include having trouble sleeping, ruminating and relying on stimulants such as coffee and sugar to get you through the day.
“At the pointy end, you might start feeling depressed, have trouble getting out of bed or lose motivation to go to work,” he says. “If you’re anxious, stressed out or can’t focus, they’re often early indicators that you need to make some changes.”
What are the dangers?
Aside from the obvious emotional and physiological toll of workplace-related stress, and the pressure it can put on both professional and personal relationships, burnout has been linked to a raft of mental health complications, including depression, alcohol dependence and anxiety disorders. Left unchecked, burnout may also have physical manifestations, with research finding that those suffering from burnout syndrome have increased risk of heart disease, obesity and insomnia.
While it might be easy to cast burnout as “just being a little tired”, ignoring the signs can lead to long-term health implications. The worst thing to do would be to ignore it, Richard advises. Speak to your doctor as soon as you notice symptoms.
Richard’s top 10 tips for avoiding burnout when working from home
As tempting as it might be to work in your pyjamas, Richard says getting dressed helps to get you into work mode – and vice versa. “In the morning, you put on your work shirt, then when you finish work, you take the shirt off and put on the hoodie,” he says. This subtle act, even subconsciously, signals to your brain that it is okay to switch off.
Create a dedicated workspace
Having a dedicated workspace helps you to compartmentalise the day. “Visual cues are important,” Richard says. “Try to designate one area that is work and one area that is non-work. This is particularly important if you live in a small space.”
If you can avoid it, he says to try to keep your work area separate from your relaxation area. If your desk is set up in your living room, for example, avoid sitting on the couch while you’re in work mode. You don’t want the areas you typically use for relaxation to become associated with work.
Black out time in your calendar for breaks
Working from home means you don’t have any automated breaks. “Try not to have back-to-back meetings,” Richard advises. “Make a point of starting meetings five minutes after the hour so that you have a couple of minutes to stand up, stretch, have a glass of water or even sneak in a quick meditation.”
He says even blocking out small, five to 10-minute breaks in your calendar can make a big difference – as long as you don’t just use them to check your emails or scroll Facebook.
“If you’ve ever had those days where you’re trying to pack so much in that everything blurs into itself and you get to the end of the day and wonder what you achieved – when you put those breaks in, it gives you the space to finish one task and let go of what you were doing before moving on to the next.”
If you’re feeling flat or lacking motivation to complete a task, Richard says a quick meditation is one of the best ways to reset.
“Meditation is attention training,” he says. “One of the key messages of mindfulness and neuroscience is that it strengthens your prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that is associated with memory, attention and decision-making. You literally see it grow.”
He says the effect is that people notice they are more focused, have a better memory and can better manage their emotions.
Stop trying to multi-task
Multi-tasking is a myth, Richard says. If you want to work smarter, not harder, the key is to focus. That means turning off tech, alerts and email notifications and putting your phone away.
“Digital tech is designed to hijack our attention,” he says. “Learn to focus on one thing at a time. It's not just about managing tech, but also learning to sustain focus on the most important thing. There is loads of research that this boosts our productivity."
For parents trying to juggle work life and remote learning, this can be particularly fraught.
“If you only have an hour a day where the kids are doing their thing and there are fewer distractions, you need to make the most out of that hour,” he says. “Just sit down and uni-task and focus your attention on the highest-priority task.”
Don’t each lunch at your desk
Whether we’re in the middle of a pandemic or not, taking breaks throughout the day and getting away from the screen is essential. That includes the age-old advice of not eating at your desk. “Eat lunch mindfully and without a screen,” Richard advises. “If possible, try to put your work away so it’s not there to tempt you.”
Compartmentalise your day
Now more than ever, delineating between work and non-work is paramount to maintaining a balance. “It’s really important to have a solid routine,” Richard says. “At the end of the day, go and do something else. Get changed, exercise, get some fresh air – transition into a night-time routine so that your brain knows it’s time to let go and relax.”
Don’t check emails after hours
When you’re living and working from home, checking your emails after hours can make it feel like you’re always on, always working. As tempting as it might be, once the work part of your day is done, don’t fall into the trap of checking your emails. “Just don’t do it,” Richard says. “Whatever it is, it can wait until tomorrow.”
Richard says companies including Volkswagen, Goldman Sachs and BWM have taken bold steps to reduce workers' stress and boost mental health, such as limiting, and even banning, emails after hours and discouraging working on the weekends. Volkswagen even goes to far as to turn off some employees' email 30 minutes after their shifts end.
Just because you don’t have an early meeting, it doesn’t mean you should stay up and watch just one more episode of whatever series you’re bingeing. “When we sleep, memories get consolidated and we drain away the beta-amyloid – a protein linked to Alzheimer’s disease – in the brain,” Richard says. “People who don’t sleep are at increased risk of mental health problems.”
Your sleep routine begins the moment you wake up in the morning so do whatever you need to during the day to make sure you get your seven to nine hours of quality sleep at night. That could mean not having coffees after midday or sticking to a regular bedtime. “When sleep is good life tends to be good so use sleep as a barometer.”
Give yourself permission to unwind
One of the driving factors behind burnout is our inability to relax. “We need to give ourselves permission to stop and unwind,” Richard says.
“That means getting uncaught from this cult of busy-ness. There is a big difference between busy-ness and productivity so, if you’re feeling like you might be suffering from burnout, ask yourself: is the way you’re working for you or against you? How many things are you squeezing into your calendar? One of the big silver linings here is that, as things slowed down a little bit, people started reconnecting with what’s really important. Use this time to figure out what has meaning for you.”
If you or anyone you know needs help with mental health issues, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
RACV has partnered with Lifeline to support Victorians impacted by the summer bushfires and COVID-19.