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5 Tips to Manage Burnout in the Age of COVID

It's not just workload or overtime that's hurting you.

Christian Erfurt/ Unsplash
Source: Christian Erfurt/ Unsplash

Working remotely is making us feel burned out. An always-on culture forces people to work longer hours and people are expected to be visible all the time. However, the real cause of burnout is not just the workload or overtime.

According to Gallup, burnout is a cultural problem, not an individual issue only exacerbated by COVID-19 restrictions. Unfair treatment at work, unmanageable workload, unreasonable pressure, and lack of communication and support have affected people for many years now — working remotely is only amplifying the symptoms.

Think about your reality. Are you feeling less energetic? More cynical? Less effective? Burnout is more than feeling exhausted; it’s a condition that affects our overall wellbeing and productivity.

Here are seven ways to help you take action and start dealing with burnout.

1. Familiarize yourself with the signs of burnout

Though working from home has disrupted most people’s routines, burnout symptoms haven’t changed much. Familiarizing yourself with these warning signals is vital to realizing what’s causing them and tackling burnout.

Unfortunately, when we acknowledge most of the signs, it’s usually too late. Most people start losing their focus, feeling distracted or tired, and minimize those early warnings until they crash.

Job burnout isn’t a medical condition — it’s a state of physical and emotional exhaustion that affects your productivity but can also harm your self-confidence. Depression or sadness might accelerate burnout, but experts differ on what really causes it. However, familiarizing yourself with the key signs and symptoms is critical to start doing something about it.

  • Feelings of detachment from those around you, including family members or colleagues — remote work can make this feeling even worse.
  • A sense of productivity loss that could be real or just perceptual, decreasing your confidence and motivation.
  • Physical symptoms like shortness of breath, headaches, chest pain, or heartburn.
  • Avoidance and escapism, such as not wanting to wake up, getting hooked on social media, and eating or drinking more than usual.
  • Sleep disorder, feeling restless during the day but unable to relax at night due to overthinking and constant worries.
  • Engaging in escapist behaviors, such as drinking excessively or other unhealthy coping mechanisms.
  • Loss of concentration can be manifested in jumping from one thing to another or not finishing simple tasks.

2. Build a support system

One of the things people are missing the most is a support system. In normal times, you could grab a coffee with a colleague to share your problems or have a friend pick up your kids from school if you are running late. In a locked-down world, this has become much harder, if not impossible.

The full-time job of working, caring for the family, and homeschooling kids takes a toll on everyone – especially women.

According to research, two times as many working mothers are worried about their job performance because they are juggling too many balls. Women feel they lack support, and most men don’t realize the need. Only 44% of mothers said they were splitting household responsibilities equally with their partner, while 70% of fathers believed they were doing their fair share.

People who seek support experience much less burnout than those who don’t. Book five-minute calls at least twice a day. Reach out to a friend, colleague, or family member. Find someone willing to talk or who can energize you. Start a group on Messenger or WhatsApp and make a habit of sharing how you are feeling.

You never know where support can come from. “I am not ok and feeling rock bottom,” tweeted Edmund O’Leary, “Please take a few seconds to say hello if you see this tweet.” He received more than 200,000 likes and more than 70,000 messages of support in one day. Every touchpoint counts to fight burnout.

3. Create remote watercoolers

Casual conversations build bonding and also help address day-to-day problems. But what happens when you work remotely and there’s no room for watercooler chats?

The solution lies in recreating rituals that foster social interaction and impromptu conversations. At FreshBooks, random people from different departments are assigned to meet over coffee, increasing bonding, and psychological safety. You can practice this with your colleagues and gather for a “virtual coffee.”

Many organizations have translated those experiences into a remote work setting.

Zappos is famous for hosting dozens of company-wide events. The online retailer has sent a herb garden kit to those who signed up, and people can share theirs with other colleagues. This virtual ritual was inspired by the actual garden at Zappos HQ, where employees share everything that’s harvested.

The Slack app Donut is an effective way to randomly connect team members for a virtual coffee, peer learning, and more.

Don’t let the lack of physical watercoolers affect team bonding. Stay connected with your colleagues by recreating a virtual version of your team rituals.

4. Redefine your work schedule

The reality of remote work requires that we challenge the traditional 9-to-5 schedule. Employees need to create flexible schedules that allow them to deal with other responsibilities, like homeschooling. You must shift from input (how much you work) to output (what you deliver).

Reclaim your commute time. If you used to travel to your office, protect that time for other activities like prepping your kids for virtual school, exercise, or reflection.

I used to take the train to Chicago every morning and used my commute to write. Now that I’m working from home, I continue to wake up at the same time, have the commute time blocked on my calendar so I can still write uninterruptedly – I go outside, weather permitted, to recreate the feeling that I’m in between two places.

Set clear boundaries and clarify with your manager and teammates what’s okay and what’s not okay. Clear boundaries reduce burnout. Most people are afraid to bring this topic up with their bosses. However, the consequences of burnout are more terrifying — no matter how much you work, when you feel rock bottom, your productivity will suffer.

Working remotely requires balancing synchronous and asynchronous tasks. While in a regular office setting, people must collaborate at the same time, but that’s no longer true when you work from home.

Limit video calls and use more textual-based communication, allowing people to read and respond at their most convenient time. Recover the value of phone calls. Research shows that hearing someone else’s voice creates a stronger connection than video.

Last but not least, adjust your activities to your energy/mood levels. The magic of building a flexible schedule is that you can leave a task that requires more concentration for when you feel more energized or won’t be interrupted. Build your schedule rather than having others — or routine — do it for you.

5. Make time for well-being

Adapting to remote work requires much more than using new technology and tools; you must also recharge your batteries more often.

Microsoft is rolling out mindfulness prompts in the Teams application to help people begin and end their days with intention.

This initiative is being spearheaded by Kamal Janardham, general manager of Microsoft Workplace Intelligence. The mindfulness expert recommends turning off all notifications for deep focus, stretching before meetings, and avoiding video fatigue. Janardham likes to take virtual walks with her remote colleagues, recreating the one-on-one talks they took while working in person.

Microsoft research shows that 30% of workers feel more burned out due to COVID-19. Overcommunication is making things worse; after-hour chat messages have increased by 69%, and weekend chat messages have tripled during the pandemic.

Monitor your screen time to identify excesses and where to cut. Set aside a few minutes per day to reflect on your habits. What’s working and what’s not working? What can you improve? If you are working too much, maybe it’s time to block a moment to stretch, meditate, exercise, or simply connect with friends.

Take time to rest, not just to sleep, but also to relax and have some fun. Research suggests that rest is the best antidote for burnout. Avoid being always-on. Even a two- or three-day vacation can boost your energy and focus; small breaks during the day are also great to feel recharged.

Deep breathing exercises and meditation increase your well-being regardless if you practice a few minutes per day.

Showing kindness to others in your community increases your sense of purpose, improving your own well-being. We are living in stressful times, and everyone is struggling — just like you. Help those who are more vulnerable; your mind and body will pay it forward by making you feel more relaxed and energized.

Burnout can seriously affect your health in the long run. The good news is that you are not powerless; there are many things that you can change for the better. Start by understanding how burnout affects you, make time for reflection, and improve your habits — one at a time.

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