Kat, a communications consultant and freelance writer based in Chicago, says she’s been struggling with burnout since she began sheltering in place in March. She’s constantly “frazzled and sleep-deprived” and feels worried and exhausted. Her husband works during the day, while she takes care of their five year old and six month old. Then they switch around 5:30 PM, and Kat works until midnight or 1 AM. “Half the nights though I'm too exhausted and my brain just won't function,” she says. “With COVID, the sense of helplessness and uncertainty adds a layer to it all.”
This burnout also feels particularly hopeless and dreadful, Kat says, because the pandemic won’t be over anytime soon, so it feels like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. And making matters worse, to try to maintain the quality of her work, she’s been sacrificing her “me” time—watching TV, talking to friends on the phone, reading for pleasure, and pursuing more ambitious work projects—for months.
Burnout isn’t a new concept, but Kat is one of many Americans who are dealing with a new form of burnout from working at home, and really, from just being at home all the time. Whether or not you have kids, you’re trying to work and live as if things are normal during a time that isn’t normal at all. There’s a global pandemic that has infected millions and caused more than 180,000 deaths (and rising) in the United States. It has led to pay cuts across industries and widespread layoffs. The pandemic has also upended people’s daily lives and routines in every way.
The combination of work stress, personal and collective health anxiety, financial stress, and political unrest are contributing to a specific kind of burnout brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
What is Work-From-Home Burnout, and Why Is It Happening?
Work-from-home burnout happens when people can’t separate their work life and their home life, says Andrew Schwehm, a licensed clinical psychologist with Alma, a network of mental health providers, who also works at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and teaches at NYU School of Medicine. People are having an especially hard time separating the two during the pandemic when they’re working and living in one space.
“What I've heard a lot from clients is it's difficult to know when the work day ends and when your own life begins,” Schwehm says. “Because we live in such a connected world, whenever an email notification comes across your phone or your computer, or whenever you get a text from a coworker, you feel this need to answer it, even though it might be after five or six o'clock.”
The feeling of constantly being “on” and connected can make people feel exhausted—physically and emotionally. Often they feel like they can’t think about anything but work, so they stop doing things they enjoy. It can turn into a cycle that’s more than just normal fatigue, which is “typically viewed as more acute or shorter-term,” Schwehm says. “Burnout is essentially a chronic form of fatigue.”
One employee who works for a large technology company in Boston says that before the pandemic, she had great work-life balance. But since she began working at home, she sometimes starts work as early as 7 AM and won’t finish until 11 PM. “I’m thinking about work at night and dreaming about work,” she says. “I go to bed exhausted, I wake up exhausted. I also feel more compelled to work. When I wake up I immediately open my work calendar and for the 30 minutes I’m getting ready in the morning work is creeping through my mind. There’s no break.” She also feels emotionally separated from work. “When I was in the office I felt super excited or happy sometimes when something would go well, but now I feel somewhat numb,” she says.
Celeste Viciere, a therapist based in Boston and host of the podcast Celeste the Therapist, says the pandemic contributes to burnout in ways that just working from home during a normal time wouldn’t. People now have kids, partners, and roommates at home, or they might be caring for sick family or elderly parents. They’re also trying to do everything—work, exercise, relax, socialize—in a space they didn’t previously use for all those things.
“When we're [in the office], we actually can just focus on work because the environment allows that to happen,” she says. Now, though, a lot of people are working at home while also reading the news or getting on social media. They’re distracted by the political climate. Their access to outlets for stress, like going to the gym or meeting up with groups of friends, might also be limited due to safety measures, which could exacerbate burnout even more.
There’s also the added pressure of feeling like you have to present your best happy face at work. The employee in Boston says she’s “living in two worlds”: the “video world” where she has to expend emotional labor and present the positive, productive side of herself at work, and then life on the other side of the screen, where she’s in a pandemic and struggling.
How to Recognize Work-From-Home Burnout
Work-from-home burnout might not be easy to spot during the pandemic, when we’re all experiencing lots of stress and emotional turmoil. But Schwehm says one of the major signs is persistence: The exhaustion from burnout runs deep and doesn’t go away quickly. Here are a few other signs to look out for:
- Losing track of tasks
- Not completing work on time
- Going through mood changes like irritability, sadness, or anger
- Experiencing symptoms of depression, like hopelessness, loss of interest in things you used to enjoy, or fatigue
- Feeling discouraged or apathetic about work
- Getting poor sleep, experiencing insomnia, or having trouble falling asleep
- Drinking more alcohol than normal, or drinking to cope
- Experiencing physical symptoms like chest pain, headaches, increased illness, heart palpitations, dizziness or fainting, or gastrointestinal pain
Viciere recommends paying attention to how your body feels, because burnout might show up physically before you recognize it rationally. “Our bodies can give us indicators, whether it's tension [or] joints being tight,” she says. “Our body will always keep...score.”
How to Recover From Work-From-Home Burnout
Dealing with burnout might require more than a long weekend or a vacation, especially since the pandemic-related working conditions could continue for longer than anyone originally anticipated. Though taking time off is important—even during the pandemic—burnout is often a cycle and a chronic condition, so if you don’t change your working conditions or habits in the long term, you will likely just burn out again.
There might not be one thing that magically makes you feel better, but testing out a few different strategies might help, Schwehm says. Here are four things you can try:
Take Control of What You Can
At a time when it feels like so much is out of our control, Viciere says it’s important to recognize what you can change in your own life, like what you eat, how you sleep, and how often you exercise.
“Food intake starts to look differently if we're sitting at the computer all day and working,” she says. “That can affect our mood, and, in turn, affect the way that we are operating at work.” When you eat regular meals—even if that means scheduling time on your calendar for lunch—you’re more likely to choose healthy foods that keep you energized throughout the day. If you have a tendency to graze all day, make sure to stay stocked with healthy snacks.
Developing a bedtime routine will also help you get better sleep, Viciere says. “Try putting the phone down at least 30 minutes before bed,” she says. “You can use some aromatherapy lotion or candles, try meditation and even writing in your journal. Make it a nonnegotiable for the night and look at it as your medicine. The goal is to set up systems so that your brain knows that it is time for bed.”
In addition to using the Calm app to help her fall asleep at night, the employee in Boston has started setting aside time for daily walks. Though fitting in another activity is the last thing people want to do when they’re burnt out, Schwehm says regular exercise can really help boost your mood, even if it’s just 15 to 20 minutes of walking each day.
Talk to Your Boss
It’s important to build a relationship with your boss and check in with them regularly, regardless of whether it’s about burnout or other things happening in your life, Schwehm says. He suggests setting up at least one 15-minute meeting (in the form of a video or phone call, for now) with your boss each month. If your boss’s schedule is too tight for that, send them bi-weekly emails.
If you feel like you’re burnt out and are ready to bring it up, try to identify what you might need before you go into the meeting. Write down the major points you’d like to convey—like that you’re feeling burnt out in part due to the pandemic and could benefit from adopting a flexible schedule or setting more boundaries (more on that below)—or questions you’d like to ask, and take notes during the meeting.
Create Boundaries and a Routine For Work
In order to break the cycle of constant work and exhaustion, you’ll need to set some boundaries. These could include:
- Only working during designated hours
- Not responding to emails outside of your working hours (and perhaps shutting off notifications or removing your inbox access from your phone to make this easier)
- Taking a lunch break away from your computer
- Taking a 15- to 30-minute break every day
- Working flexible hours
Some you can implement on your own, while others might require support from your team or company, depending on the company culture, norms, and expectations. Outline some potential solutions you think would help you and, if you feel it’d be necessary or beneficial, set a meeting with your boss and/or HR to talk about why you’ve been feeling burnt out and what you think could improve the situation.
If you’re worried about your boss or HR pushing back, then Viciere suggests writing down the time you’re spending on each project or task to show your boss that you’re doing more than the allotted 40 hours.
In order to keep your work boundaries, Viciere recommends creating a separate work environment at home if possible. That might mean making your kitchen table a temporary desk, and only working while you’re sitting at the table—not in bed or on the couch. She also suggests creating a routine prior to starting work each day, which might include going for a run, walking, or taking a shower. The routine will help your brain become prepared to work and focus.
Schedule “Me Time” Every Day
Setting aside time for yourself can be tough, so Schwehm has a simple suggestion: Try to take two five-minute breaks each day—one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. “Just stay away from your technology for a second,” he says. “Do some form of a quick mindfulness exercise.” Mindfulness, he says, could look like a few different things: It could be taking a few deep breaths, paying attention to how each part of your body feels while you breathe, counting things in the room you’re in, or smelling a fragrance you like, like lavender or cinnamon.
“Those five minutes can really help reset you,” he says. “It's so important for our brain to be able to take a break from often-monotonous tasks, even if for a short period of time, so that it can come back to them with a different perspective.”
But in addition to taking small breaks throughout the day, both Viciere and Schwehm encourage people to set aside other time to do things they enjoy, whether that’s playing with a pet, pursuing a hobby, or having dedicated alone time. Hobbies can decrease stress by taking your mind off work or news about the coronavirus, and they can even ultimately boost your work performance.
Connect With Someone
“Keep yourself from isolating too much,” Schwehm says. “Right now we are so disconnected from others... It can create a lot of loneliness, and I think it's really important for us to get connection however we can.”
Talk to others about what they're going through, Schwehm says, whether you’re speaking to a therapist or catching up with your best friend over the phone. A therapist can help you make a plan to talk to your boss and manage burnout in other ways, while a friend or family member is likely feeling some of what you’re feeling, and they can remind you that you aren’t alone.