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Avoiding Burnout When You're Working From Home

Knowing the signs can help you pull back before you hit the wall

spinner image frustrated man holds his head while looking at computer in his home office
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If you've dreamed for years of working from home only to find doing so its own kind of crucible, well, you're not alone. In fact, mental health experts say the stress of working from home — while managing things like other family members’ needs, isolation or anxiety related to COVID-19 — is bringing workplace burnout home.

"I'm hearing from lots of people who say, ‘I'm trying to get my work done — and a lot of other things, too. I feel like I just can't do anything well right now,’ “ says Amy Morin, a psychotherapist in Marathon, Florida, and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do.

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Along with anxiety over jobs that don't transition to home very well, mental health experts are hearing of intense frustration from moment-by-moment juggling and, for some, growing feelings of hopelessness for keeping job, home and sanity together over what for many is a still uncertain timeline.

So is it burnout?

While burnout is not an official diagnosis, experts agree the phenomenon involves feeling overwhelmed and lacking the energy or resources to overcome the obstacles standing in your way. “It has a lot to do with emotional exhaustion and believing you're ineffective no matter what you do,” says Morin.

It's no surprise that burnout has reached proportions almost as great as the pandemic itself. “When you don't have clear boundaries between work and home, when you're working around the clock, and your Zoom calls are interrupted by your pet — any of that could contribute to burnout,” Morin says. “Everything's intermingled and it makes life a lot more messy.”

How do you know you've hit the wall? Key signs, experts say, are physical and mental exhaustion, experiencing more aches and pains, and feeling uncharacteristically irritable.

"People also tend to make more mistakes and act out,” says Alice Domar, a psychologist and executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health in Boston. Left unchecked, burnout can lead to illness or depression, she says.

Making daily structure your defense

To target burnout, Morin advises setting some limits between your work and home life, even if you can't separate the two geographically. “It might be as simple as changing your clothes at the end of the day,” she says. “That's a signal for you that now is your free time. Sometimes just closing your laptop and putting it away can make a big difference.” She also suggests taking an hour-long break and not answering work email at lunch and/or committing to avoiding it after 7 p.m.

Once your workday is over, remove the evidence. “You don't want all of your stuff all over the dining room table all the time, if you can help it,” Morin adds. “Looking at your work and having it stare back at you is too tempting."

You should also seek to add regular fun to your agenda. “We all need things to look forward to in life,” Morin says. “Maybe on Sunday afternoon, you're going to bake cookies or have a Zoom call with your grandkids.” What's important, she says, is making things like a weekly hike, Friday evening cocktails or Sunday movie time official dates on your calendar. Looking forward to these events can boost your mood, just as creating a positive memory from the experience can pack a “powerful punch” afterward, Morin says.

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Domar also advises her patients to reframe the COVID crisis to counteract automatic negative thought patterns, such as “This is going to go on forever.” A more helpful thought: “This is going to be catastrophic, but temporary,” she says.

Next up: Attempt to de-stress

If you're approaching burnout, it's more important than ever to address your stress. Domar suggests taking time each day for relaxation — from a formal meditation practice to short stints of deep breathing. (Close your eyes, then count down slowly from 10 to zero, taking a complete breath — one inhalation, one exhalation — with each count.)

That's been part of Sasha Nyary's approach to battling what she felt was impending burnout as a newly remote editor for Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. While at first Nyary, 59, says the sudden lack of structure had her overeating and crying — “a lot” — a daily routine of morning meditation and a walk, coupled with attending virtual church services and journaling, has helped her fend off a deeper funk. “I tell myself, ‘All we can do is stay in the moment. We could be a lot worse off,’ “ she says.

Social support, experts say, is another great stress reducer. “You need to call people, Zoom with other people, and go for social distancing walks,” Domar says. “I have a lot of patients who are having tea parties or book clubs virtually.”

Finally, getting some sort of regular exercise is key — whether it's as simple as Nyary's daily walks or something more challenging, say, training for your first 10K. What you choose doesn't matter; following through does. “Exercise is the best stress reducer, bar none,” Domar says.


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