It's not you, it's work. The pandemic workday is 48 minutes longer with more meetings

There's a reason it feels like it's March 145th.
Bird's eye view of woman lying on blanket on meadow with dog using laptop
“Some people struggle to turn off at the end of the day since they no longer have that change in environment to mark the end of a workday,” said one mental health expert.Getty Images

We’re almost 7 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, which for many Americans means the seventh month of working from home. When considering the unemployment rate, an uncertain path to economic recovery, and the knowledge that folks in various “essential” jobs don’t have the luxury of working remote, it’s easy to feel an urge to sweep one’s grievances under the rug. “Why are you complaining about work,” I’ve asked myself. “You’re lucky you have it!”

But let’s forget about gratitude for a minute, and just look at the facts: According to a recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the average workday is 48.5 minutes longer than it was before the pandemic, and meetings have gone up by 12.9 percent. Mind you, this is just on average. Depending on your field and role, you could be putting a lot more time in on Zoom.

“I've had clients tell me they did 50 hours of Zoom meetings over the past week and are exhausted,” Rachel Dubrow, a licensed clinical social worker, told TODAY.

Catherine Ward, the managing director of JFFLabs, a national workforce and education nonprofit, noted that American workers are under historically intense pressure.

“They are navigating remote work from their kitchen tables, juggling childcare and homeschooling —not to mention actually putting their lives on the line to keep essential businesses open during this pandemic,” Ward said. “They're being asked to do so much more than we've ever expected of them in the past.”

The pressure builds up and can take its toll on your mental health.

We’re struggling to stay focused — and struggling to unplug

Dr. Nzinga Harrison, co-founder and chief medical officer of Eleanor Health, an addiction and mental health services provider, has clients dealing with “empathy fatigue," compassion burnout, more difficulty working collaboratively and less motivation to tackle projects. Additionally, she pointed out, there has been an increase in drinking on the job as people work from home and try to manage the stress of the COVID environment.

Brian Wind, a clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer at Journey Pure, a drug and alcohol treatment facility, sees clients either unable to get out of work mode, or unable to experience a sense of accomplishment once the work day is over.

“Some people struggle to turn off at the end of the day since they no longer have that change in environment to mark the end of a workday,” Wind said. “Others struggle to stay focused during the day since they have more distractions at home, and that is especially true of people with kids. They can easily feel overwhelmed all day — like they’re working all the time but never getting anything done.”

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Zoom meetings require deeper concentration, and more work for your brain

Therapists are feeling the draining effects, too. Harrison said that the influx of Zoom meetings has been so exhausting, that she and colleagues have “occasionally joined a video conference by phone only, just to take a break.”Michael Mazius, a behavioral psychologist, shared that recently he and a group of fellow clinicians were trying to figure out why they were all so tired. “It’s not just working more, as we have been,” Mazius said, pointing out a spike in the need for mental health services amid the pandemic. “It’s all the [Zoom meetings], when you're working virtually, it pulls you in more. You have to concentrate harder, meaning your brain is working harder. Part of the fatigue people feel comes from having to tune in more deeply than usual.”

Both workers and businesses are still adjusting to operating in a pandemic and nobody has any clear sense of what’s going to happen. “With so much uncertainty, it’s not business as usual at any company,” said Loni Freeman, vice president of human resources at SSPR, a national public relations agency. “Everyone is concerned about what’s coming next and how long this will continue. It’s a mentality of: do more now before something else happens.”

How can we take steps to optimize our situation and restore some sense of work-life balance to our days? Here’s what experts recommend:

1. Take Zoom fatigue seriously.

“Since we know this is a real thing, we need to try to be mindful of how we address it,” said Dubrow. “I don't blame [clients] for being exhausted and what we almost always discuss is boundary setting. Which meetings can be done as a walking meeting where you're outside walking while listening in? Which meetings are optional versus required? I often have to remind clients that if they schedule the meeting, they get to decide if it can be done on the phone and its duration.”

2. Practice saying ‘no.’

“There's a constant spin of worry: ‘If we aren't productive enough, we might lose our job, so we better work as hard as humanly possible,’ [or] ‘if I say yes to everything, my boss will value my work even more and I won't be on the short list for layoffs.’ While I understand all of these things, we are demonstrating our ability to cope by showing our employers that we are capable of more than we ever were before. It's a vicious cycle, and — while I wish we all had superpowers — it's not sustainable. Hence the exhaustion. So, take 10% of the things you are being tasked with and say a polite ‘no’ and see what happens. If you say ‘no’ and it works, great! If you say ‘no’ and it doesn't work out as planned, you are now armed with a new response and expectation.”

3. Work outside when possible.

“If you're comfortable, work outside at a coffee shop, restaurant or even your back porch,” said Dubrow. “Being outside can help with the exhaustion because it gives us more direct access to sunlight, which can help promote vitamin D production in the body. We know that there have been links to vitamin D and symptoms of depression in the past, so it's worth considering.”

4. Do something joyful that marks the end of the work day.

Meagan Turner, a grad student studying psychology, pointed out that it helps to have a ritual of some sort to perform at the end of the workday to signal to your brain that that the working portion of the day is done and you can shift back to your personal life.

“Think about it in the context of how bedtime rituals like brushing teeth, changing clothes and pulling back the sheets signal to our brains that the day is over,” said Turner.

Mazius agrees this is a good strategy, but stresses that whatever you do to end the workday should bring you joy.

“Find your source of pleasure and hold yourself accountable for engaging in it,” said Mazius. “Make sure you do it every day at the end of the workday. The routine aspect is really important. Don't make excuses as a way of not doing it. And always remind yourself that you’re doing your best. You’re wearing multiple hats right now, so don’t strive for perfection. It sounds trite but it’s true: Go easy on yourself.”