WFH Burnout

I recently contributed to an article on Work From Home Burnout, which many people have been experiencing since COVID-19 took centre stage. To see the original article, take a look at Just Breathe, Digital Magazine

Sian Green | Clinical Psychologist 

Burnout is often misunderstood and downplayed in this world of Productivity = Success. But it is real and it is big! In fact, in 2019 the World Health Organisation (WHO) classified burnout as an official medical diagnosis.

It’s awful having work steal the life from your body and leave you feeling like a pile of poop, with a boss still breathing down your neck expecting more and more…. We are all familiar with the stark reality of feeling depleted and worn out. 

In writing this article I looked back on a piece I wrote on Burnout in 2016, where I commented that “Burnout is a global phenomenon. […] I picked up the latest Natural Medicine Magazine (October 2016) and right there, Dr Ela Manga (an integrative medical doctor) points out that “South Africa […] has been rated the second most stressed country in the world *after Nigeria”. This rating was out of 74 countries!” 

Fast forward to 2020 … the world has shifted! The phenomenon of Work From Home (WFH) has become the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic norm. The suddenness of this shift, the juggling of multiple roles (teacher, parent, professional) in your home environment, the economic stress, the lack of chit chat and socialising that the office environment brings, and the sometimes deafening silence of you with your tick-ticking at the keyboard or on the contrary the deprivation of silence as you jump from meeting to meeting – the quiet gaps between where you could reflect and take a moment in-between have been ripped away.  

In the initial phase of this sudden shift to WFH, there was a lot of scrambling to get organised – a need for remote functioning, improved technology, figuring out new expectations, demands and roles became imperative. In this phase, many employers were left wondering how to keep employees motivated and productive, envisioning a bunch of lazies lying around in their house, taking the micky and getting a pay-check. Early in lockdown, I read some “COVID work from home directives” that a management team was giving their employees and I somehow doubt it was an isolated directive. I was quite astounded to see employees basically being scolded out in advance – for good measure – a fear tactic of sorts I suppose, stay in line or else! I mean as though a pandemic is not enough of a threat to your safety.  

On the other end, employees were stressed at figuring out how to manage all of these new expectation while still wanting to show their commitment to work, with the upped threat of job loss, the need for performance has never been more pressing.  

A few months in ….. and what has emerged is a world with blurred lines between roles and expectations, an “always on” mentality, an anxious approach to perform and demonstrate one’s worth as an employee. It is not unproduction we are faced with, but rather overproduction and some high-level propensity for burnout. A further challenge is that the usual go to strategies for addressing burnout – kick starting the adrenal system, having a new experience, recuperating, taking a vacation, shaking up your routine – well they are somewhat limited (to put it mildly). 

Let’s learn how to avoid or get through Burnouts: 

Keys to avoiding burnout

RECREATE BOUNDARIES: Boundaries have disappeared with the WFH shift, you now work where you live and the separation of environments and roles has vanished. Those ‘already in place’ environmental shifts now need active effort and thought – each of us needs to create the off switch. I recommend that you do not work outside your working hours as far as is possible. Switch off your tech, no-ones needs to be available 24/7. Re-introduce a lunch break and tea breaks. Check in and out of your workday. 

SHIFT ROLES WITH PURPOSE/SEPARATNG CONTEXTS: It is important to shift between roles and try separate cntext as far as you can, shifting with purpose. Blurring the roles or rapidly switching between teacher, professional, child minder, domestic tasks, gardening and so forth brings additional drain. You are not multi-tasking; you are blurring contexts! Separating contexts as far as is possible is more productive and easier to be present in the task you are doing. 

CHECK IN TO YOUR PERSONAL LIFE: Share about your day with your partner or those in your household. At times, because we share the same physical environment, we forget to share about our day – but you experienced different things, had individual thoughts and emotional experiences. Creating a common context with your partner and family means sharing some of your individuality.  

HAVE FUN: Think outside the box on things to do. Have a picnic in the garden (or in front of the fireplace), go on a date in your lounge (dress up for the occasion). Organise a date box (see www.datefactory.co.za). For the whole family: have each family member plan an activity to do.

TAKE TIME FOR YOURSELF: Low tech time with a notebook, a walk through your neighbourhood looking at your surroundings, pick up a hobby, do something varied. Having variation and new experiences is valuable in this time. 

SOCIAL CONNECTION: Human beings are social creatures we need social contact. Use technology and contact those in your life, get out of your hermit-ness and talk.

LET GO OF PERFECTION: Striving for perfection is stressful and unachievable. To avoid being a slacker, have clarity on your role and responsibilities and work within this. If you can get feedback on how you are performing, do so. This will give you a more direct indication of how you are doing in this new work climate, so you do not have to guess on your own.  

Already burnt out? What to do

HIGH ENERGY ACTIVITY: Burnout is total energy depletion. Your challenge (considering restricted living) is to find something fun to do that can re-introduce energy into your body. Though you need sleep, rest, and low energy time, I would suggest starting at the other end, it is easier to kick start energy by introducing energy rather than waiting and hoping for it to restore.

DOWNTIME AND REST: You have been burning the midnight oil for some time, you need downtime and low energy activities that can help you rest. 

AVOID A BURNOUT LOOP: Bring in new norms for your new work environment by introducing the *keys to avoiding burnout* mentioned above.

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