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When Work-From-Home Burnout Doesn't Let Up

Expert advice for those caught in a pandemic purgatory of exhaustion and stress

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Working from home might have seemed exciting and novel a year ago. But 14 months after COVID-19 upended our work and home lives, the thrill is gone. Now many of us are facing a twin pandemic: burnout.

Take Brett Sonnenschein, 54, a graphic designer for a large nonprofit in New York City. At first, he did well working from home. “It was kind of like an adventure, and our family is very close,” he says about his wife and two children who attend high school remotely. But as the ordeal has gone on, his tune has changed.

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"Technically, everything has worked great, but I'm physically exhausted at the end of the workday,” he says. “There's a massive decline in my mental ability as the day goes on, and it's hard to do any real work after 3 or 4 p.m.

"Since the beginning of the year, I've been more and more exhausted, and the work-home line has gotten increasingly blurred,” he adds. “I used to never think about work at home, and now I can't stop thinking about it.”

Sonnenschein has company, according to Margaret Wehrenberg, a clinical psychologist in St. Charles, Missouri, and the author of Pandemic Anxiety: Fear, Stress, and Loss in Traumatic Times. “I don't think that anybody could have known how utterly draining and exhausting it is to be stressed and distressed for this long,” she says.

No ordinary burnout

The chronic, unpredictable stress of the past year has created an altogether different kind of burnout, Wehrenberg says. “This time last year, there was the feeling that we're all in this together, we're going to stick it out, and people were watching funny YouTube videos to cheer themselves up,” she says. “Then everybody ran out of steam, and the goal posts kept getting pushed farther away, again and again. With no end in sight, we've all become really depleted of mental energy.”

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Some psychologists refer to this perpetual ennui as “languishing,” a midway point between depression and living your best life.

Whatever you call it, pandemic burnout has exacerbated existing work pressures. “Exhaustion is the number one workforce trend,” says Leah Weiss, a lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and the author of How We Work: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim Your Sanity, and Embrace the Daily Grind. “It's rampant.”

One indicator: Fewer people are taking their vacation time. “This was a problem prior to the pandemic. Now it's through the roof,” she says. That's true in part because layoffs have left remaining employees with bloated workloads.

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At the same time, conducting business from the dining room table and on impersonal Zoom calls has stripped crucial stress-buffering social interactions — the so-called watercooler chatter — from the workday, Weiss says. “People don't have an opportunity to talk about what's happening in their lives. And they don't have the opportunities to support one another and get support.”

Help for the weary

Thankfully, experts say, there are work-arounds for this pandemic purgatory. Wehrenberg recommends taking nature breaks, since spending time in a park or on a trail has myriad mental health benefits, whether you're working or not.

For instance, volatile organic chemicals emitted by trees and exposure to the diverse microorganisms in nature may aid in cognition and mental well-being, research shows. Try moving your lunchtime walk to a nearby nature preserve, or get outside for just 20 minutes before the workday begins — consider it your new commute. And keep in mind that regular exercise is part of every doctor's prescription for burnout of any kind.

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As people get vaccinated and more parts of society open up, reconnecting with a spiritual practice in the community can be another balm, whether you spend time in a place of worship or a yoga class. “Spirituality was challenged during COVID because we were separated from our groups,” Wehrenberg notes.

However, Weiss points out, burnout can't always be entirely addressed by personal shifts. “It's created as part of a system,” she says. “And you may not be able to yoga and meditate your way out of it.” Sometimes, she adds, you have to address the issue head-on in the workplace itself.

If you're a manager, try to be sensitive to workloads, and be conscientious about tracking them, so you're not adding assignments that go beyond employees’ job descriptions. It's also hugely helpful to establish weekly check-ins with your team.

"One of the most powerful things individuals can do is raise conversations,” Weiss says. “Say, ‘Can we carve out 15 minutes to do a quick go-around? How is everyone doing? What's distracting you?’ That can build community, and from there can come compassion and support."

Communication is also critical on the employee side. “If you're already overwhelmed with the amount of work you have, and you're continuing to get more and more piled on, have some phrases at the ready, such as ‘This sounds important. So what is the priority? Is it this or the other five things on my plate?’ “ Weiss advises. “That can change everything.” You can also simply ask for help prioritizing your workload; you may be surprised by how helpful your boss can be.

And with warmer days approaching, by all means take a vacation — even if it winds up being a staycation. While some people are afraid of the stress they'll experience when they return from vacation and have to catch up on all the work missed while lounging by the pool, others are hoarding vacation days for use post-pandemic, Weiss notes.

Bad idea. Just as scheduling regular time-outs throughout the day is key to battling work-from-home burnout, so, too, is marking some larger breaks on your calendar. Get a vacation on the books. Or, if you truly can't find a coworker to cover for you, at least plan a couple of long weekends so you'll have something to look forward to.

Finally, give yourself grace. It may not be possible to do your best work from a house full of family members or if your obligations to kids and parents don't let up. “We need to lighten up on ourselves about not fulfilling our highest expectations of ourselves,” Wehrenberg says.

Weiss agrees. “Having some self-compassion is going to help us more in the long run than self-criticism,” she says.

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