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Prevent Burnout When Working Remotely

Jamie Davidson June 3, 2020
Work Stress

Burnout has long been an issue amongst high-performers – especially those working remotely. But the standard advice for resolving burnout often runs counter to what’s permissible in the COVID-19 era. Today, many of the old rules don’t apply. Depending on geographic location it may not be possible to take a break outside of the home or to spend social time in person with friends or colleagues.

When social distancing is the norm and travel is out of the question, how can remote workers, including, those who are newly home in light of facilities lockdowns find balance in their workloads in order to avoid burnout?

It’s a more pressing issue than many companies realize. Data from a new Glint employee survey suggests that “comments around burnout doubled from March to April, increasing from 2.7% to 5.4%, suggesting that it’s a growing threat to the productivity and engagement of today’s workforce.” Further, “those who struggle with balancing home and work are 4.4x more likely to exhibit signs of burnout.” That’s nothing to ignore. Burnout can contribute to mental health challenges, lower productivity, and lower morale. To protect yourself to the fullest extent possible, keep the following tips for preventing burnout when working remotely in mind.

What Does Burnout Look Like?

General malaise or stress isn’t the same as experiencing true burnout. Before you can take steps toward prevention, you need to know how to identify burnout. According to Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D. in Psychology Today,  burnout is marked by three common characteristics:

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion
  • Cynicism and detachment
  • Feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment

Each of these characteristics can manifest in different symptoms. For example, physical and emotional exhaustion may show up as chronic fatigue or insomnia for some workers, while others may experience anger, depression, anxiety, or increased irritability.

As a remote worker, you have the additional challenge of self-identifying your own burnout symptoms. Knowing this, make it a priority to check in with yourself weekly and compare any symptoms you’re experiencing to both your normal baseline and lists like the one found in Dr. Carter’s article. If you see evidence of burnout, take it seriously by recommitting to the practices described here and self-care rituals you enjoy.

Work From Home Burnout Prevention

Keep a Set Schedule

While it might seem like working remotely gives employees the flexibility needed to work during their most productive periods – night owls working non-traditional hours or parents squeezing in work between childcare duties, the opposite can be true. Without the boundaries put in place by commuting to and from an office, remote work can expand to fill up every hour of the day.

Defining and sticking to a set schedule helps put the necessary boundaries back into place. So what should your set remote work schedule look like? To some extent, your employer’s expectations and your colleagues’ time zones will influence when you need to make yourself available. However, if you have some flexibility, use research into human productivity habits to create an optimized schedule.

Some research suggests that the optimal working cadence is 52 minutes of productivity, followed by 17 minutes of rest. Knowing that you could build a remote work schedule on 69-minute cycles, working around longer meetings or blocks of deep focused work as needed. Just be sure to take a break during your rest periods. Get up, do some jumping jacks, or walk around the block instead of staying at your computer or falling down the social media rabbit hole.

Signal the Start and End of Your Work Day

Another way to reinforce the limits you put around your work schedule is to establish routines that allow you to transition between work and non-work periods. Many successful remote workers have found that creating boundaries between work and personal life increases productivity and enjoyment in both areas.

You don’t have to be into stretching, meditation, or Spanish language learning to take advantage of this practice. If you’re new to remote work as a consequence of Covid-19, one of the most important steps you can take to keep burnout at bay is to find a non-work outlet to find satisfaction outside of your job. Playing a musical instrument, reading a book, learning a new language, starting a garden, working on a sports skill, or trying new recipes are all examples of the kind of activities that help you stay sane by allowing you to focus on something other than work.

If you’re also parenting children who are home due to school or childcare closures you may not have the luxury of spending hours on your chosen activity. But even 10-15 minutes can make a difference. Find something you love and that you know you’ll look forward to doing. Then indulge in it once you’re through with each day’s work. Having something that’s uniquely yours can combat both the isolation of working from home and the burnout that takes root when you don’t have sources of enjoyment in your life.

Don’t forget to let your team know that you have a hard stop. And stick to it! Don’t take any meetings during your personal time.

Stop Emailing Outside of Office Hours

Speaking of personal time…In theory, if you’ve put the two practices listed above into place, you shouldn’t be emailing outside of office hours anyway. But if you need more compelling reasons, know that emailing after hours also negatively impacts your recipients. Harvard Business Review found from “five studies involving more than 2,000 working adults…that senders of after-hours work emails underestimate how compelled receivers feel to respond right away, even when such emails are not urgent.”

Further, if work is creeping into personal time at later and later hours it could be impacting your sleep. And as is being proven more and more, sleep is one of the most integral factors affecting health. Don’t take it from me. In our blog post “What Science Says About Productivity” we’ve outlined how lack of sleep quantity and quality decreases productivity.

Unless your message is truly urgent, save it for your office hours for everyone’s sake. That goes double for those in managerial roles, as the power differential between you and your team members can further compound this effect.

Stay Connected to Team Members

When you’re working remotely, staying connected with team members isn’t something that happens without deliberate effort on your part (or on the part of your employer). Thankfully, today’s video conferencing software offers the next best thing to meeting in-person, allowing teams to replicate the face-to-face interactions they formerly enjoyed in the office.

Make it a point to also add social activities to your calendar. Book some calendar time at the start or the end of the week and invite colleagues to join you for a quick chat. Make it clear that these aren’t going to be work-only meetings. That you’re scheduling them to give everyone a chance to check-in informally with each other. If meeting online is new, try a few icebreaker activities to get people used to engaging and participating online.

Battling Burnout

Don’t think that the practices above are things you can do just once in order to inoculate yourself against burnout. For remote workers, burnout can become an issue that requires a positive effort to prevent. But, whether you continue working remotely for the long-term or you find yourself back in the office in a few weeks’ time, developing these skills is a lifelong practice for better physical and emotional health.