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Last year, we wrote about how the World Health Organization had officially classified “Burnout” as a legitimate medical diagnosis beginning in 2020. Since our post last year, COVID-19 has created the equivalent of a tectonic shift in working by moving huge segments of the work force to work from home. Has that change in work environment resulted in more burnout or less? Do people get burned out from working from home?
Burnout has received more attention over the past few years amid a flurry of reports documenting increasing occurrences across various occupations. Last year a Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that 23% of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always. In high stress occupations, burnout rates can soar even higher. For instance, a Medscape Physician Lifestyle Survey in 2015 reported the rate of physician burnout at 46%. But, burnout can affect anyone regardless of their occupation.
The number of people working from home had been steadily growing anyway, but with COVID-19 the percentage skyrocketed. In 2017, 5.2% of US adults worked from home on a regular basis. In March, 2020, that number had grown to 51% of employed US adults according to a Harris Poll in early April. It’s likely that the work at home number has receded somewhat as employers reopened offices, though the recent spikes across the country in COVID cases may send more workers back home. Regardless, many Americans’ are still working from home and it’s likely that a significant number of them will continue to work from home even after the pandemic is in our rear view mirror. (Yes, eventually the pandemic will be behind us!)
What is burnout?
With so many of us working from home, we wondered whether burnout is more or less of an issue than it was a year ago? To answer that question, let’s first understand what we mean by burnout. According to the WHO, doctors can diagnose someone with burnout if they meet the following symptoms:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
- Reduced professional efficacy
The diagnosis is limited to work environments, and shouldn’t be applied to other life situations.
It’s important to note that burnout is not just a mental health issue. Major health risks that have been associated with job burnout include type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, high cholesterol and even death for those under the age of 45.
Is home a “breeding ground” for burnout?
A recent article by Natasha Hinde in the Huffingtonpost in the U.K. explored the issue of burnout for those working at home. Hinde found that with “working from home the boundaries between work and personal lives are increasingly blurred. When your laptop is always within reach, it’s all too easy to check emails at 9 or 10 PM and easy to skip lunch when you’re buried in a project.”
“Working from home provides little opportunity for variety in your working day,” says Lucy Fuller, a UKCP-accredited psychotherapist. “There’s little chance for face-to-face, non-work social interaction and it comes with an intensity that would usually be broken up by traveling and dawdling on your way to work, in your lunch period and also going to meetings outside your place of work.
“Our days are therefore becoming grey and our brains are burning and clouding from sitting in front of a screen for so long. We’re effectively trapped in this way of work without a definite end point to look forward to.”
Psychotherapist Philip Karahassan, a member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, doesn’t think people know they can burn out while working from home – “people usually see it as a more relaxing work day, where they can do work at their own pace” – which might mean they’re hurtling headfirst into it.
How to Prevent Burnout
In another blog from last year we wrote about how to prevent burnout. Our advice last year holds true today regardless of where you’re working.
1. Learn your own strengths
If your job doesn’t fit your skill set, it’s easy to become disengaged. Look at new projects or even new positions to get energized. “Workers who are truly engaged spend about four times as many hours doing what they do best every day, in comparison to doing what they don’t do well,” said Jim Harter, Ph.D., chief scientist of workplace management and well-being for Gallup. Getting involved in activities that develop your strengths further can help you feel even more energized, confident and motivated.
2. Understand your weaknesses
In order to understand what you need to work on, it’s important to figure out what, exactly, is holding you back. Self-assessment is essential; without it you can’t even begin to grow. Can you improve your knowledge or skills? Learn new ones? Look into the many online courses offering management and leadership classes.
3. Develop strong partners at work
It’s not always true, but friends at work can help boost your efficiency and performance. Having friends at work can make it easier to seek advice without feeling judged, allowing you to gain access to feedback and information you might not otherwise get. Developing strong relationships and having people you can rely on — plus being a reliable partner to others — goes a long way toward preventing burnout according to Harter.
Whether you’re concerned with burnout or not, numerous studies have shown that friends are truly good for your physical and mental health. Adults with strong social support have a reduced risk of many health problems, like depression, high blood pressure obesity and even dementia.
If you are feeling burned out, don’t try to suck it up or hide it. It won’t work. A conversation with higher-ups can be valuable in fostering support, ideas and feedback for everyone involved. A good manager will be open to discussing your situation, supporting you through a rough time, and working with you to address the stressors causing the burnout. Sharing what you’re going through and feeling heard is, in and of itself, a powerful step toward improving your situation.
5. Identify a good manager
In the Gallup study on stress and burnout quoted earlier, employees who felt supported by their managers were overwhelmingly less likely to experience burnout on a regular basis. Employees who felt supported by their manager are about 70 percent less likely to experience burnout on a regular basis, according to Gallup.
6. Keep good health habits
The same basic advice that will help in relieving stress is also true for burnout: eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and get plenty of sleep.
7. Consider a change
Sometimes you’re just in the wrong place – the wrong job, a boss you don’t like, a company culture that conflicts with your personal values. You may need a change – a new position in your company, a new company, maybe even a new career direction.
To this list, Hinde adds one more piece of advice that is specific to working from home: setting boundaries. “Create a specific area just for work and separate from personal life even if it’s only a corner of a room. Set boundaries with the people around you, too.” Of course, that can be more challenging with small children at home, but not impossible. “Make clear what times you’ll be working and when you can spend time with them – and stick to that routine.”
Another great idea that Fuller adds is to think about how to create commute-type divides into your working day. “In normal circumstances we have a natural divide, which is your commute, but we now have to create our own transition,” says Fuller. “This might be doing exercise, putting music on that you love or taking a bath. “Whatever it is, use the activity to shake off your day and draw a line under your work to move into your leisure time.”
What if you already feel burned out?
Between working at home, social isolation and pandemic induced anxiety, we are all facing an unprecedented level of stress. Your work and your health may be suffering as a result. What if you’re already burned out from working at home? Here’s what to do.
Take a break
Stop, get away from your many screens and tell yourself you’re doing a great job. “Take a break outside of your home environment,” suggests Karahassan. Go for a walk, preferably outdoors. And if you’re fortunate enough to live near a wooded area or forest, walk there. Exposure to forests strengthens your immune system, reduces blood pressure, increases energy, boosts your mood and helps you regain and maintain focus. The Japanese call it “shinrin-yoku” or “forest bathing.” Even 20 minutes in a forested space is enough to produce positive changes in the body. “If you can’t go out, go in the shower, wash your face, just do something for you. That five or 10-minute break can give you the space to reset and take control of your thoughts and feelings,” Karahassan says.
Indulge in something that brings you joy
Take some personal play time. Reconnect with old friends. Read a book. Listen to music. Whatever it is, “Turn off your work screen and indulge yourself in something that brings you joy,” adds Fuller. “You won’t regret it.”
Take care of yourself physically
“Avoid unhealthy vices like smoking and drinking and instead try to do things for your mental wellbeing – do some exercise, connect with loved ones, prioritize self-care, sign up to volunteer, and try to work smarter (not harder), says Hinde.
Practicing mindfulness can help you live in the moment rather than thinking about the next Zoom meeting on your calendar. And practicing gratitude can promote feelings of positivity – write down three things that went well today, or for which you’re grateful.
Breathing exercises are useful when things feel too much, so take five minutes out of your day, sit comfortably somewhere, and focus on your breath.
If these remedies don’t work, consider consulting with your employer’s EAP or wellness program, or discussing your feelings with your physician. Don’t try to gut it out alone.
Espyr has been helping people achieve and maintain good mental health so they can perform at their best for over 30 years. Clients in the most challenging occupations rely on Espyr’s innovative coaching, counseling and mental health advocacy programs to maintain employee health and well-being. For more information on how Espyr can help your organization, call Espyr at 888-570-3479 or click here.