‘All the days are blurring together’: How to battle burnout and find a healthy work-life balance during the pandemic
‘I, for one, feel burned out by constant Zoom meetings all day’
Vanessa Bohns is one of the fortunate Americans who can work from home, but the blurring of lines between work and home life sometimes takes its toll.“I, for one, feel burned out by constant Zoom meetings all day, so having Saturday and Sunday without them feels like a real break to me,” Bohns said. She also needs to set boundaries with co-workers: “When colleagues have suggested meeting over the weekend, I always ask to find another time,” she said. “It may feel like all the days are blurring together, but that doesn’t mean that we should operate as if every day is basically a work day now.”
‘I, for one, feel burned out by constant Zoom meetings all day, so having Saturday and Sunday without them feels like a real break to me.’
Bohns, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University’s ILR School, said it helps to forgo checking email for set amounts of time. These times will vary depending on the person, she added.
“For example, I often have to respond to emails at odd hours because I have small kids at home,” she told MarketWatch in an email. “But setting a period of time where you’re not allowed to work or check your work email, that is carved out for yourself, is key for recharging.”
Bohns says she avoids scheduling evening and weekend meetings, and recommended preserving traditional weekends to the extent possible. She is not alone: American workers were already vulnerable to burnout before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Confined to home with additional domestic responsibilities and increasingly fluid work-life boundaries, they face even greater stress and exhaustion.
With stay-at-home restrictions in many areas to slow the spread of coronavirus, “all of these things are intensified now,” Bohns said.
Workers nationwide are feeling the pressure to always be available. Forty-one percent of employees say they feel burned out from their work, 45% say they feel emotionally drained from their work, and 44% say they feel “used up at the end of their work day,” according to a survey of 1,099 workers conducted in mid-April by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Meanwhile, 23% report often feeling “down, depressed or hopeless.”
Women in particular are “maxing out and burning out” during this public-health crisis, the result of their taking on more housework and care-giving responsibilities than men, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and her LeanIn.org co-founder, Rachel Thomas, wrote in a recent Fortune op-ed. Women are also more likely than men to report experiencing sleep issues and physical symptoms of severe anxiety, according to recent LeanIn.org and SurveyMonkey research they cited.
“Before the coronavirus crisis hit, many women already worked a ‘double shift,’ doing their jobs, then returning to a home where they were responsible for the majority of child care and domestic work,” Sandberg and Thomas wrote. “Now, homeschooling kids and caring for sick or elderly relatives during the pandemic is creating a ‘double-double shift.’ It’s pushing women to the breaking point.”
What is burnout?
Burnout, an occupational phenomenon defined as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” is marked by exhaustion or energy depletion; heightened mental distance or negative or cynical feelings related to a job, and “reduced professional efficacy,” according to the World Health Organization.
“Burnout is essentially feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by work, often to the point where you stop caring and start to disengage,” Bohns said. “It can be caused by, among other things, feeling ‘on’ all the time, the pressure to be the ideal worker, and the difficulty so many of us have maintaining work-life balance, even in the best of times.”
Now, she added, “people are finding it even harder to ‘log off’ from remote work.” “People are worried about layoffs and furloughs, and so feel even more pressure to demonstrate their value to the company, or prove they are an ideal worker,” Bohns said. “And as we shift to doing all of our living and working at home — many of us with partners and children — work-life boundaries are blurred more than ever.”
The current situation also leaves us with fewer outlets for recovery and rejuvenation, such as blowing off steam at the gym or meeting up with friends, said Nancy Rothbard, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Workers now lack certain natural boundaries they once had between work and life, and even those accustomed to remote work can’t currently seek a change of scenery at a cafe or coworking space, she said.
“We have a lot of additional restrictions on us,” she said. “It’s a very different type of challenge than a normal work-from-home challenge.”
If you’re struggling to set boundaries, preserve your energy and mental health, and make time to recharge during this time, here are some expert-recommended strategies that might work for you:
Designate times, places and devices to not associate with work
For Rothbard, using different devices during different blocks of time helps to differentiate between “home time” and “work time,” she said. She generally tries to use her computer for work during the day, and use her iPad if she needs to look something up during the evening. Some people looking to create work-life boundaries also find it helpful to “wall themselves off” and set up a separate, dedicated workspace, Rothbard added.
Take care of yourself
“Self-care right now is essential,” said Lori Whatley, a clinical psychologist who specializes in the impacts of digital device usage. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, exercising and engaging with other people regularly, even if it’s only by text, she said.
Practicing mindfulness, she added, “is one of the very best tools we can have in our tool box to ease anxiety over the things we cannot accept.” Whatley recommends the meditation and relaxation app Calm. For more meditation apps, check out MarketWatch’s 2018 roundup.
Stop working when your work day ends
Make a plan and stick to it, Rothbard said: If you plan to work until 6 p.m., stop working at 6 p.m.. “If you’re really, really on a roll, fine — you can deviate from that,” she said. “But if you’re in a situation where you feel like you haven’t gotten enough done but you’re really dragging, you want to stop. You want to take a break.”
If you’re keeping normal work hours right now, follow the typical guidance on unplugging during the evening, Bohns said, such as setting your phone to not ping you for work emails and sleeping with your phone and laptop in a different room. When you get a chance to go for a walk or take a long bath, she added, leave your phone elsewhere.
“It’s a little harder for people whose work hours have had to shift, for example, because of child care. Sometimes the most productive time for those individuals is in the evening when the kids are asleep,” she said. “Nonetheless, carving out some of your evening, or some time during nap time, or a child’s allocated screen time, for yourself is key.”
if you’re a remote worker who puts on work clothes to feel more productive, changing out of those clothes at the end of the day can help you ‘turn off.’
If your job involves meeting deadlines, be proactive about scheduling in breaks. “In order to take enough breaks to keep your energy up, you have to plan that out,” Rothbard said. “Otherwise, you’re going to run out of time and you’re going to be up against the wall. Constantly chasing the deadline is another way to burn out.”
And if you’re a remote worker who puts on work clothes to feel more productive, changing out of those clothes at the end of the day can help you “turn off,” Bohns said. “It’s a physical signal that something has changed, you’re no longer in work mode, and that mode actually feels physically different,” she said.
Make each day a little different from the last
Humans enjoy structure, but we can also modify parts of our daily routine “so it’s not just trudging through one identical day after another,” Whatley said. Even small changes can make a significant difference, she said: Try swapping your coffee for green tea one day, she said, or instead of eating your usual 4 p.m. apple, try an orange.
‘Vary the walk you do, vary the TV show that you watch, vary the book you’re reading.’
Plan out variation in your social interactions too, Rothbard suggested: Maybe you can connect with an old college friend tomorrow, a work friend the next day, and a family member the day after that. “Vary the walk you do, vary the TV show that you watch, vary the book you’re reading,” she added. “Those are really good ways to build in variety and combat the monotony of the everyday experience in this more limited work-from-home world.”
For Bohns, having things to look forward to in the week ahead goes hand in hand with supporting local restaurants still offering takeout. “We’ve made plans to, say, have lattes and bagels delivered for breakfast on Wednesday, or order from our favorite pizza place on Friday,” she said. “Planning ahead like that allows for the anticipation, and it’s also a nice incentive to keep track of the days, as you count down to that latte from your favorite coffee shop.”
Don’t overwork yourself (and don’t be afraid ask for help)
More than one in five respondents to the SHRM survey said that the pandemic had threatened some aspects of their jobs, including personal opportunities, pay and benefits, job security and safe working conditions, “to a great or very great extent.”
‘Try to avoid preoccupation with how other people live their lives — especially as viewed through the incomplete lens of social media.’
But “these are the exact circumstances that can lead someone to feel pressure to work all the time to demonstrate their value, or to refrain from asking for help when they need it because they are worried about admitting any weakness,” Bohns said.
“Preventing burnout by ensuring you give yourself time to disconnect is consistent with maintaining productivity,” she said. “Burnout is the enemy of productivity, so working all the time isn’t good for either.” If you require extra flexibility to avoid burnout, she added, “you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for it for fear of being judged harshly.”
Avoid comparing yourself to coworkers
Your coworkers might seem to have their act together, and even find time to bake bread and learn a new language on the weekends, said Cathleen Swody, an industrial/organizational psychologist and partner at the consulting firm Thrive Leadership. But try to avoid preoccupation with how other people live their lives — especially as viewed through the incomplete lens of social media — and focus on what’s doable for you and within your control, she said.
Find ways to make progress
During work time, focus on your major priorities rather than on busy work — tackling “the really big stuff that’s going to give us a sense of achievement,” Swody said. Off the clock, take up a small hobby or project (or even a puzzle) that helps you feel like you’re working toward an accomplishment or new skill. “Progress is so good for our brains,” she said. “It tells us we’re moving forward.”