For better or for worse (mostly for better), the world economy is rapidly transforming in a number of ways. One such way is that there are now more of us working from home, more of the time, than ever. And by all indication the trend is here to stay. This is a great thing. But it also raises new issues to consider, like the growing epidemic of remote work burnout.
Working remotely can do wonders for your mental health, and help you to create a healthier balance between the business of your life and the business of, well, business. It’s also possible to be far more productive working at home than anywhere else.
But if you are still relatively new to these waters, you may be experiencing that it has its obstacles, too.
One of the most common of those challenges is remote work burnout. That feeling of discontentment from being alone all day, exhaustion from being stuck in the same environment, even dread at the thought of the next conference call or virtual happy hour.
Most remote workers face it at some point. But with the right tools, it’s something we can all manage and get ahead of.
Work from Home Burnout Is a Real Thing
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. Well believe it or not, WFH burnout is a real thing.
Every form of work takes up mental, physical, and emotional energy, albeit in different ways and to different degrees. As such, each causes its own unique forms of friction.
With working from home, those may 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
I am a huge fan and proponent of working from home. I have done it for years, and fully intend to keep doing so for many more. But like I said, every form of work has its challenges. And remote work challenges can have some pretty ugly effects on us.
3 Symptoms of Work From Home Burnout
One may reasonably assume that the trouble with video meetings and conference calls is an introvert/extrovert thing. Like it might work well for one and not the other. But interestingly enough, a day of all-digital communication can be exhausting to either. Something about the quasi-social dynamic of these interactions can be difficult for everybody. Introverts feel like they have to be “on” the whole time. Extroverts still find themselves missing the sense of connection they crave.
Complete 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. For many people, this is not the case at all. But when we face remote work burnout, a different kind of focus problem arises. It’s the kind of focus problem that comes 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, working from home 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’s very hard initially to define where exactly one ends and the other begins. Over time this lack of boundaries can leave you feeling like you’re working poorly, but working all the time. And that’s clearly no good for home or work.
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, relaxy.
While going through this sort of thing has become practically a rite of passage to those new to working mostly or fully remote, it doesn’t have to be this way. With a few simple tools, we can get ahead of this problem. We can improve our at-home workday, and still be able to unwind and recharge at the end of it.
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 that there’s no point in taking the work seriously. This is one of the most common mistakes I see from people who are new to the WFH world. Taking what you do seriously, even when no one is watching, is critical for building practical self-respect.
For instance, the clothes you wear matter, even when you work from home. It may feel great to roll out of bed in sweatpants, sink into the couch, and start your workday… for a few minutes. But after a little while, this scenario becomes detrimental. It slowly chips away at your self-respect. It also blurs the line between your work time and downtime, which has a negative impact on both.
Put on some daytime clothes (comfy ones are still fine), sit up straight, and be fully at work when you’re at work. You’ll deliver much better, and breathe a lot deeper when you’re done.
2. Boundaries Are Life
Traditional onsite work has very clear, natural boundaries. The job exists in both a certain 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 boundaries 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. Just Say No
It’s great to have boundaries, but we also need to protect them.
A big cause of remote work burnout is that we feel guilty 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. If you technically have access to your work, and a coworker asks you to get one more report done on Sunday night, you could do that.
The fact that we are logistically able to 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 of these mental spaces within bounds.
4. Routine Is Your Friend
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 your 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 on your own in an environment with less structure, there’s less likely to be much routine by default. But you can still create it. To the extent that your work allows, try to keep a fixed and familiar schedule. Have certain 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. Have Human Interactions
No matter how social (or not social) of a person you consider yourself to be, all-digital communication has to be supplemented with real face-to-face contact. No big surprise here, right? Video calls are a great business tool, but they tend to drain all the humanity out of basic conversations. It’s crazy how much of an impact a 200 millisecond delay can have on simple human connection. For our own sanity, we need to balance it out by regularly reminding ourselves what in-person interaction is like.
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 connection. We all need conversation that’s not set to 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.”
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 by 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 be a big help. Schedule in a workout, take walk/stretch/exercise breaks, stand up to do your work if you can. Doing so will be a huge boost to happiness, physical health, and productivity all in one.