Is working from home wearing you out? Do this to avoid burnout

As the lines around work and home life blur, many Americans say they're burning out. Here's how to beat back work-from-home stress.
A woman works on her computer at her home office
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Many of us aren't just working from home, we're panic working. Juggling the demands of work and childcare — amid the stress of living through a pandemic, record unemployment and job insecurity— is weighing on us.

According to a recent survey, 51% of workers said they've experienced burnout related to working from home due to COVID-19, and 52% said they have no plans to take time off to decompress.

But when everything is stressful, how do you know if you're even experiencing burnout?

The Mayo Clinic describes job burnout as "a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity."

The World Health Organization (WHO), which recognized burnout as an "occupational phenomenon” last year, points to these signs and symptoms:

  • Lack of energy or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

Dr. Lisa Orbé-Austin, a psychologist and executive coach in New York City, said living through a pandemic has given burnout a new lens. Many of her clients are “struggling in this moment — wanting to be valued at work and seen as contributing, but also struggling with how to do it.”

Gone is the daily commute — and that built-in time to think about the day ahead or decompress on the way home. Now, it’s a matter of going from the bed to the couch and back again. "People are dreaming about work and feel like they're never letting it go," Orbé-Austin explained. “It’s a continuous exposure to work.”

Randy Simon, an expert on work-life balance and a psychologist in private practice in Montclair, New Jersey, previously told TODAY that a lot of setting yourself up for work-from-home success comes down to boundaries. “I tell clients who work from home that they really need to compartmentalize,” Simon said. “For example, make sure there is a separate place in your home for work, so that your whole home isn’t synonymous with work.”

But what if that seems impossible?

6 ways to beat back work-from-home stress

If you feel like there’s no separation between your job and home life, are exhausted all the time or lack the motivation to get things done, Orbé-Austin and Simon point to a few things you can do to keep work-from-home burnout at bay.

1. Carve out a space of your own, even if it’s just a comfy chair

Not all of us have the luxury of a dedicated office space, but Orbé-Austin says you need to have a desk and computer setup that works — including a comfortable chair. Since there’s no timetable for many remote workers going back to the office, now’s the time to reassess your situation so that you can work comfortably and efficiently.

Just because your boss knows you’re home doesn’t mean you have to be constantly available to them.

2. Set boundaries and limits

“Just because your boss knows you’re home doesn’t mean you have to be constantly available to them,” Orbé-Austin said. Establish a firm start time and end time to your day — and take time for breaks and meals. Because this can be incredibly difficult to do if you feel like your job is threatened by layoffs, Orbé-Austin offered this perspective: If you're burned out, you can't be an effective employee.

3. If you’re working and juggling family life, set a schedule

Establish a schedule and rhythm with your family to accommodate dueling Zoom calls and/or establish head-down work time. Ask yourself what’s working and what’s not and make adjustments. Orbé-Austin said to keep it fluid though: “What was once working may not always work.” Many of her clients are working opposite hours — for example, working 6:00 to 9:00 a.m. and then logging back on when their kids go to bed. If your employer is open to flexible schedules, Orbé-Austin recommends having a conversation with your boss to see if you can rearrange your schedule so that you have more flexibility.

4. Practice self-care

Orbé-Austin said exercise is critically important, as is making sure you’re sleeping well and practicing mindfulness. She also recommended “making a list of the things that bring you joy and hardbooking them into your schedule” to avoid burnout.

5. Reclaim your commute, sort of

If you were working in an office, the time to mentally transition and decompress would occur on your commute home, Simon said. Refer back to Orbé-Austin’s “joy list” and set a block of time to mark the end of the workday by going for walk, tuning into a podcast or calling a friend.

6. Take a day off … the right way

It’s important to take a day off if you’re experiencing burnout, Orbé-Austin said, but not without having a plan in place. Structure the day so it will be different from your other days — in a way that aids in your recovery. Make a plan for self-care: exercise, meditation, time with family, whatever helps you relax and recharge. “We need the break. We’re working much longer and much harder,” she said.

What if that doesn’t work?

If you continue to feel overwhelmed trying to juggle life while working from home, Orbé-Austin said it’s worth working with a therapist. “They can be incredibly useful resources to structure the kind of recovery plan you need to be put into place,” Orbé-Austin said. There are a variety of teletherapy options that can be accessed during the pandemic, as well as hotlines and online resources. She also emphasized that there's a reason WHO defined burnout as an "occupational phenomenon" — and that there is help out there if you need it.