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Living at the Office: How to Avoid WFH Burnout

Many of us have started working remotely these days. However, there are steps we can take to limit any additional stress and potential for burnout such changes bring to our lives.
by Joshua H. Phelps | May 6 2020

For all the jokes about living at the office, these days many of us actually are. Shelter-in-place orders and social distancing requirements have turned homes and apartments into makeshift workplaces. Blinkist is no exception, and with the Checking In series on the app, we’ve been hearing from different employees and bestselling authors about how they have handled the abrupt change.

This arrangement comes with its fair share of distractions and temptations. You’re reminded of both the things you want to do around your home and for work. As this period of uncertainty continues to draw out, you may feel that you should put in extra effort at work regardless of the actual workload. By doing so, you’ll highlight your dependability and contributions.

But ramping up also comes with the risk of burning out. The strangeness of the atmosphere continues to soak into everything to the point that crossing out your day-to-day work tasks can feel like a fight for survival.

Heed the Signs

There are a few key signals your body and mind send out when you are experiencing burnout:

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Depersonalization, which deadens the emotions that let you relate to other people
  • A lessened or depleted sense of accomplishment that can build into a sense of futility

According to Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski’s book Burnout, these sensations arise when we feel stress but are unable to see an end for it. Many of us already had plenty of stressors prior to the pandemic, but this crisis has added more or made old ones more complicated.

So, how can we go about working from home while avoiding this emotional bonfire?

A Space-Time Continuum

With reminders of both work items and home chores around, multitasking sounds like the optimal solution. If you have any downtime from your job, you can clean the dishes or put together your shopping list or reply to the messages you’ve been hearing on your phone.

In reality, though, having our minds flit between both these to-do lists means dealing with multiple sets of stressors at the same time. And you may start to feel stressed from how dealing with one set of tasks takes you away from the other. This compounding can also turn everything into one enormous untamable enterprise.

Cal Newport’s book Deep Work sees multitasking as an unsustainable approach. Giving in to distractions only reduces the quality of work we produce, and Newport recommends setting up a schedule in which you determine when and what you’ll be working on. In creating the conditions that allow for focus, we work more efficiently.

My own experiences in working from home have primarily been tied to contract work. This also meant there was a limit to the number of hours I could work per week or sometimes per day. However, this also offered a framework I could use to structure my weekdays. And, aside from my lunch break, those hours scheduled for work went towards work.

Having a specific place where you work also helps keep you in that work frame of mind. Usually I would sit at the dining room table.

Exceptions, Not the Rule

There will always be some exceptions or special projects that require some extra time, but it is important that these remain edge cases. This current blurring of work-life boundaries may lead some to clock more hours, either as a show of loyalty or a desire to be productive.

Part of what drives this is the underlying desire for perfection. In moments of uncertainty, it becomes easy to adopt the mindset that anything short of a spotless performance will render us expendable. Hence, we push ourselves even harder, the modern version of the “fight” in the fight-or-flight response.

We set many of these expectations upon ourselves. And Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson make the astute observation in their book It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work that exhaustion and burnout do not yield innovation.

Fried and Hansson remind us that many of the slogans and mantras that encourage us to always push ourselves tend to originate on social media. And the atmosphere in the cloud may not coincide with the reality on the ground.

For this reason, Fried and Hansson mandated an 8-hour workday in their company, Basecamp. They recognized that leaving time open-ended would end up creating the kind of sprawl that leads to burnout. Basecamp’s project structure also does something similar. Managers and employees are not allowed to extend the boundaries of their project beyond the initial parameters. By avoiding mission creep, employees can focus their energy towards accomplishing the tasks at hand.

The Right Word

Working from home also means that we can’t turn to our coworker or manager for quick clarifications. Extra effort goes into deciphering word choices, punctuation, and emojis in the hopes that it approximates what the sender meant.

This is why clarity of communication is so important along all the levels of an organization. Making sure others understand what we want and need goes a long way to preventing frustrations. After all, who likes to devote a fair stretch of time to something only to find out it wasn’t quite what was wanted?

While clarity and forthrightness can go a long way to preventing confusion, it is also important that the language not come off in a way that is gruff or callous. Stressful situations tend to bring out a more curt or clipped way of communicating in people.

However, such kinds of back-and-forth tend to create a feedback loop that can easily and rapidly spiral downward.

And not even between people. Such a train of thinking can occur within one’s own mind.

Approach conversations and our thoughts through the lens of compassion and the methods advocated by Marshall Rosenberg in his book Nonviolent Communication. By working through our needs conscientiously and letting people know them clearly, we can help each other to avoid misunderstandings and reduce the stress of uncertainty at work, ultimately helping team performance as Monica Worline and Jane Dutton found in researching their book, Awakening Compassion at Work.

With many of us suddenly turning our kitchen tables into work desks, balancing work and life has become another challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic. The sudden adjustments add to the stresses already occurring at work, which places people at greater risk for burning out.

Setting up boundaries in terms of time and space while remaining open, honest, and compassionate in our approach to work will help pull potential kindling away from an emotional flameout.

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