Working From Home Might Make Burnout Worse—Here’s What to Do

Updated 06/18/19
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In May, the World Health Organization declared burnout an official medical diagnosis, describing it as "a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." Symptoms include exhaustion, negative feelings toward one’s job, and difficulty performing well at work. If you’re an active member of the workforce in 2019, you’re likely familiar with some version of the issue. And, there are a ton of explanations for why burnout has become so common: we stay connected to our devices 24/7, email has blurred work-life boundaries, and one-third of Americans work more than 45 hours per week.

A less apparent contributing factor of the burnout epidemic, though, may be something that’s disguised as a luxury: working from home. Thanks to developments in technology—hello, Zoom meetings and Slack chats—it’s getting less and less necessary to show up at an office, meaning you can wear pajamas all day and skip that traffic-filled commute. According to experts, the main reason the option to work from home makes burnout worse is it becomes less and less clear when the workday starts and ends, if it ever does.

But even worse than that? The isolation factor. "In an office setting, even on a busy day, you can generally always take a few minutes here and there to chat, laugh, complain, vent, or vent with your coworkers," explains psychotherapist Alison Stone. “These moments, even brief ones, are critical to boosting our mood and relieving stress. Working from home does not afford you the options for the socialization and connection that are so important in preventing burnout." Plus, it makes it harder to pick up social cues from the people around you (creating an even more difficult time setting boundaries). “If you're in an office, you can look at the person next to you, see them goofing off, taking a lunch break, or leaving on time and likely give yourself permission to do the same,” Stone adds. “When you work from home, you have to navigate these boundaries independently, and many people err on the side of wanting to be an 'ideal employee,' which has somehow translated into someone who is always working or always available."

The working-from-home-burnout connection may seem bleak, but there are ways to do it without falling victim to burnout. Here’s where you should start.

Use your calendar to your advantage.

About that calendar packed with meetings and deadlines: Why not schedule a little downtime in there, too? Career and leadership coach Jennifer Maynard suggests scheduling as many breaks as you can throughout the day. “I use it to block off lunch and even block my calendar off for the duration of time between the end of the day and start of the next,” she explains. “I find that the notification reminding me it’s time to log off the computer is usually pressure enough to shut down for the day. There’s also the perk of having the calendar blocked so that others can’t schedule you during your breaks or time off."

Come up with a plan to avoid isolation.

Considering we’re social creatures who benefit from time around other people, it only makes sense that too much time alone would contribute to burnout. So get out of that isolation rut. “You need to prioritize in-person socialization after-hours,” says Stone. “Be diligent about making plans with friends, or taking a group exercise class, or attending some form of communal event. Even if you live with someone, it’s important that you give yourself time and space to connect with other people throughout the day—otherwise you might find yourself dumping a lot of pent up energy and demands on your partner."

Limit distractions.

When there’s no one watching you, the urge to watch Netflix or check social media every three minutes while you work is very real. But giving in to distractions means you’ll get work done in a less timely manner, which means more hours working and a greater tendency toward burnout. “When you notice yourself losing focus, take stock of what is distracting you and brainstorm solutions to get back on track,” suggests Maynard. “This will help you be most productive during your work hours so that you can get everything done and shut off when you need to.”

Shower and put on real clothes.

Yes, working in your pajamas is a luxury. But if you’re struggling to set boundaries around work and life, try creating a routine that signals your brain that you’re officially in work mode. “Take a shower, put on clean clothes, and sip a beverage that helps you jumpstart your morning,” says Maynard. “Doing small tasks between the time your alarm goes off and getting down to work will help you signal to yourself that the workday has officially begun.” It may even be helpful to venture out to a coffee shop or join a co-working space to make good on real, tangible boundaries between work and home.

Set up your environment for success.

Working in a hunched-over position on your couch with your laptop on your knees may be comfortable for an hour or so, but it’s not ideal for an entire workday. Even if you live in a small apartment, it’s important to carve out a space that you designate as your "office" and make sure your technology is up-to-speed with what you’d have at a more traditional space. “If you require lightning-speed Internet to host video conferences throughout the day, make sure your service provider can handle the task,” says Maynard. “If juggling multiple spreadsheets is a daily occurrence, will your laptop be sufficient, or do you need a spare monitor and mouse at home? If printing documents out before reviewing them is part of your normal routine, ensure you have access to a printer.” If you work from home, take heart: With a few lifestyle adjustments, you can enjoy all the benefits that come with working from home without getting burned out. So, go hop in the shower now and change out of those PJs.

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