There are many for whom the global shift toward remote work in the last few years has been the gift of a lifetime. A minimal commute, more time with family, and a lower-pressure work environment are just a few things that many people appreciated about the transition. However, every rose has its thorns, and with remote work, one of the biggest is burnout.
While many people find that remote work lets them be far more productive and mentally healthy, it also introduces new challenges. For instance, loneliness, a lack of boundaries, and constant video calls can all lead to mental exhaustion.
Most remote workers start to feel burned out at some point. But there’s plenty we can do to cope with that burnout and reduce the risk of encountering it in the future.
Recognizing Remote Work Burnout
To those who have yet to experience it, remote work burnout can sound like little more than the latest in a long line of unrealistic millennial complaints — the participation trophy generation strikes again. Even so, WFH burnout is a real issue that many people face.
Every form of work takes up mental, physical, and emotional energy. As such, each causes unique forms of friction.
Some of the typical stressors of working from home include:
- Being connected-but-not-really with your coworkers
- Experiencing freedom not just as a benefit but also as a burden for the first time
- Drawing the line between being at-work-at-home and at-home-at-home
- Longing for water-cooler small talk or anything that isn’t 100% business
- Trying to circle back with Mike from purchasing in the same environment where you normally cook tacos, play dinosaurs with your spouse, and watch Parks and Rec reruns
Individually, each of these may prove only a minor frustration. However, an overload of these stresses can harm workers’ job performance and, more importantly, their mental health.
Symptoms of Work From Home Burnout
How do you know if you’re experiencing work-related burnout? Chronic stress and prolonged challenges with work impact everybody a little differently. However, there are a few common burnout symptoms to watch out for if you’re feeling regularly overwhelmed with job stress.
Many assume that the trouble with video meetings impacts introverts and extroverts differently. But interestingly enough, a day of all-digital communication can be exhausting to anyone. The quasi-social dynamic of these interactions can make introverts feel like they have to be “on” the whole time while also failing to give extroverts the sense of connection they crave. The depersonalization of this type of connection leaves almost everyone wanting.
Loss of Focus
There’s a common assumption that the many stimuli of being in the home environment will make it impossible to keep one’s attention on work. Of course, for many people, this is not the case at all. But when we face remote work burnout, a different focus problem arises. It results from being mentally and emotionally exhausted and having your self-control wiped out. Once this happens, focusing on even basic tasks can become a massive hurdle.
In direct contrast to the above two problems, which make it hard to get your regular work done, telecommuting can also make it harder to stop working. That’s because one of the biggest causes of remote work burnout is insufficient boundaries. When the home and the office occupy the same physical space, it can be tough to define a healthy work-life balance. Over time this lack of boundaries can leave you feeling like you’re working poorly but working all the time. And that’s no good for home or work.
6 Tips for Surviving WFH Burnout
WFH burnout sucks. It can bring down your engagement and performance in your work, which is pretty lame. But then, on top of that, it can counterintuitively take you further out of your personal life. This type of mental and emotional burnout is as likely as not to make you feel overworked and make your relaxing time feel less, well, relaxing.
While going through this sort of thing has become practically a rite of passage to those new to working remotely, it doesn’t have to be this way. With a few simple tools, we can get ahead of this problem. As a result, we can improve our at-home workday and hang up our hats at the end of the day, proud of our work and ready to unwind and recharge.
1. Take It Seriously
Just because there’s no one sitting behind you, monitoring your search traffic, or watching over your shoulder, doesn’t mean there’s no point in taking the work seriously. On the contrary, taking what you do seriously, even when no one is watching, is critical for building practical self-respect.
It feels great to show up to work in the clothes you slept in, sink into the couch, and watch Adventure Time in the background while you’re working. For a few minutes. But over time, this attitude feels stinky and unfulfilling. You won’t feel great at work, and even relaxing on your own time will lose its shine because you’ve been doing it all day. And not for nothing, but it’s awful for your back.
Put on some daytime clothes, sit up straight, and be fully at work when you’re at work. You’ll deliver much better and breathe deeper after finishing your day.
2. Set Clear Boundaries
Traditional onsite work has obvious, natural boundaries. The job exists at a specific time and a place, and it is easy to see where you stand. We still need to protect these boundaries, mind you. Technology likes to blur these lines somewhat, but the limits are there. Remote work doesn’t have that benefit. Not naturally, anyway. It is essential to both quality of life and quality of work that we know where one ends and the other begins.
Set a schedule for yourself and stick to it. Designate a spot, or a few spots in your home, where work happens. Create simple rituals to start or end your workday (like a walk around the block to “walk home” from work). Things like this send clear signals to your brain about when you are at work and when you are not. Which gives you room to rest, repair, and enjoy yourself between shifts.
3. The Power of “No”
It’s great to have boundaries, but we also need to protect them.
A big cause of remote work burnout is our guilt about saying no. If you’re technically at home and a family member asks you to help with a chore during the workday, you could say yes. You could do that if you technically have access to your work and a coworker asks you to complete one more report on Sunday night.
The fact that we can logistically add these extra things to our plates makes it hard to say no. It’s a guilty feeling. But even when work and home are in the same location, they need to occupy separate mental spaces. That is why “no” is one of the most important words for us to know. And we may often need it to keep both mental spaces within bounds.
4. Establish Familiar Routines
Along with boundaries, routine is something that we tend to get “for free” when we work in the office, but not so much at home. You know, you come in and hang up your coat, pour a cup of coffee, join the team for lunch at 12, that kind of thing. The familiarity of it all gives a healthy flow to your workday.
When you’re alone in an environment with less structure, there’s less likely to be many routines by default. But you can still create that structure. To the extent that your work allows, try to keep a fixed and familiar schedule. Have specific things that happen around the same time each day. The more your mind walks this path, the easier it will be to walk it. The less resistance there is, the freer you’ll be to get your best work done.
5. Make Room for Human Interactions
No big surprise here, but no matter how social (or not social) you consider yourself to be, we all must supplement all-digital communication with face-to-face human contact. Video calls are a great business tool, but they have a weird ability to take all the humanity out of basic conversations. It’s crazy how much of an impact a 200-millisecond delay can have on the flow and connection of a basic conversation. So to preserve our mental health and sanity, we must balance it by regularly refreshing ourselves with in-person interaction.
It could be plans with friends, quality time with family, even chit-chat with the cashier at the grocery store. Whatever it is, try to take joy in even the smallest of human connections. We all need conversation that doesn’t follow the tune of an agenda, where faces aren’t slightly out of sync with what they’re saying, and where two people aren’t constantly starting to talk at the same time and then saying, “no, it’s okay, you go.”
6. Don’t Forget to Move Around
Even at the most boring and deskiest of boring desk jobs, we still usually get some time to move around: Getting up for water, bathroom breaks, walking to the conference room and back, etc. It might not be enough for a healthy, active life, but it’s still more than a typical remote worker gets in a day.
When everything happens on the same laptop, and your kitchen and bathroom are closer than in a big office, even the basic activity of walking about can fall next to zero. Anything you can do to move around a bit more during the day can help. Schedule a workout, take breaks to walk, stretch, or exercise, or stand up to do your work if you can. Doing so will be a massive boost to happiness, physical health, and productivity all in one.
Staying Home, Happy, and Healthy
Working from home can be a fantastic alternative to traditional in-office employment for many workers. The additional flexibility and sense of calm offer many opportunities to make life a little easier. But that doesn’t mean that working from home is all smooth sailing.
Spending all of your time in one place with limited human contact, among other factors, can slowly lead to an unpleasant state of burnout. However, with a few intentional steps, you can keep yourself moving, working, and enjoying your life outside of work, too.