If you’re a knowledge worker, then burnout is something you’ve seen colleagues experience. Or maybe you’ve even experienced it yourself.
According to research published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, burnout comes from a combination of six main factors:
- Unsustainable workload
- Perceived lack of control
- Insufficient rewards for effort
- Lack of a supportive community
- Lack of fairness
- Mismatched values and skills
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated those factors: working remotely means that the boundaries between work and life become blurry, and it also adds a layer of isolation on top of it.
The way the pandemic unfolded was out of everybody’s control. Losing control is stressful. Most companies come from a culture of collocated work and weren’t wired to offer social bonding and appreciation in a remote setup.
I usually write about more tech or management topics. With the recent deep dive I’ve done on remote work, I found it important to share what I collected along the way on the topic of burnout in the context of remote work.
Burnout and exhaustion are not the same
The most common misunderstanding about burnout is that it’s just another form of exhaustion, but It’s not. I want to use two quotes that I feel have expressed that concept clearly.
The first one is from an article by Anne Helen Petersen: “exhaustion means going to the point where you can’t go any further; burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years.”
The second one is from Josh Cohen, a psychoanalyst specializing in burnout: “you feel burnout when you’ve exhausted all your internal resources, yet cannot free yourself of the nervous compulsion to go on regardless.”
What can you do about burnout? Raise awareness.
The first most important thing to deal with burnout is to talk about it. But there’s often a stigma around mental health, as if it was something shameful or if it was showing weakness.
If you’re a manager, then bring up the topic to your direct reports. Ask other managers around you or who are reporting to you to do the same. Tell everyone that it’s okay not to feel okay. It’s okay to ask for help.
If you’re an individual contributor, then bring up the topic in one of your team meetings. Say that you’ve been reading about it lately and that it concerns you that maybe some of your colleagues could be experiencing burnout, and that as a peer, you wish there was something you could do to help.
If you notice that someone isn’t their usual self, and that they become irritable, miss team events, and so on, then reach out to them privately to ask if everything is okay.
If you think you have burnout
If you’re experiencing burnout yourself, then talk about it to your manager, and to peers at work with whom you have trust.
You don’t have to say the word burnout if you feel bad about it. You can just say something along the lines of “I’ve been feeling more tired than usual lately”, “I’m struggling with something”, or “I’ve had a hard time recovering, as if my energy drains but doesn’t renew.”
You also want to check with your GP (house or family doctor) and your health insurance provider if there’s support in place that you could use.
Your job is not to solve other’s mental health issues
If you’re not a trained and experienced mental health professional, then regardless of how well-intentioned you are, don’t go around trying to solve the mental health issues of your peers and direct reports. It’s not your job to do that, and you’re not qualified for it.
Limit your actions to what I mentioned above: raise awareness, make time to connect with others and to listen to their troubles, and then put them in relation with either the mental health support program inside your company if there is one, or help them get in touch with a specialist that would come recommended by their GP or health care provider.
Preventing burnout in a remote work environment
Block time for lunch in your calendar
When working remotely, and with the boundaries between work and life becoming thinner, it’s easy to get into the trap of neglecting lunch or eating junk food because that’s easier.
Also, sometimes we feel the pressure to be available to others, and when meeting invites pile up and leave no space for lunch, we answer the call of duty and accept all of them, neglecting ourselves and our own health.
But the food you eat has an impact on how you feel. Eating junk food or taking shortcuts is fine once in a while, but when done multiple days in a row, it will impact your physical health, and quickly it will propagate to your mental health.
If you’re a manager, there is a simple cure: make a public announcement that it’s okay for everyone to block time for lunch in their calendars. It’s no effort for you and it will go a long way.
You’d think blocking time for lunch is obvious, but for many people it’s not.
I also recommend people take 45-60 minutes so they have time to prepare lunch and eat calmly, and even go on a short walk to reset their minds.
If you’re not a manager, you can bring it up to your team and your manager. Mention you’ll be more productive with healthy food in your belly, and propose to block time in your calendar to achieve it.
Blocking time is a crucial step because it signals you’re not available at that time. And if someone books you over anyway, then propose to move the meeting by saying that taking a break for lunch is an important part of your productivity.
Dealing with Zoom fatigue
Zoom fatigue is tiredness, worry or burnout associated with the overuse of virtual platforms of communication, particularly videoconferencing (Wikipedia).
And it’s not just about Zoom, it’s about all videoconferencing. It’s just that Zoom is one of the most popular video call software out there, and the name stuck.
- Excessive amounts of close-up eye contact is highly intense.
- Seeing yourself during video chats constantly in real-time is fatiguing.
- Video chats dramatically reduce our usual mobility.
- The cognitive load is much higher in video chats.
You can replace some video calls with audio calls, or even better, have “walking calls,” in which you agree with someone that you are going to use headphones and talk as you’re walking outside.
Audio calls aren’t always possible, for example when you have to share screens or work on a document together.
But being on a video call doesn’t mean you have to look at other people’s faces all the time. How would they know anyway if you’re making eye contact or not?
Do you want to hear my ultimate trick to deal with Zoom fatigue? Just minimize the window.
Yes, you heard me. Put the window of your conferencing tool in the background, and treat it as an audio call. Others still have your face on their screens, you can still hear one another’s voice, and the conversation goes on.
Trust me, nobody will notice.
Information from the World Health Organization (WHO)
For this section, I’ve decided to copy-paste pointers from the World Health Organization. Indeed, I’m not a mental health professional myself, so I figured it’s better to pass information from people who are.
Pause. Breathe. Reflect.
Take some slow breaths: in through your nose, then slowly breathe out.
Slow breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress, because it signals to your brain to relax your body.
Notice how you are feeling and what you are thinking, without judgment. Instead of responding or reacting to those thoughts or feelings, note them, and then let them go.
Read more on who.int
Connect with others
Talking to people you trust can help. Keep in regular contact with people close to you. Tell them how you are feeling and share any concerns.
Read more on who.int
Keep to a healthy routine
- Get up and go to bed at similar times every day.
- Keep up with personal hygiene.
- Eat healthy meals at regular times.
- Exercise regularly. Just doing 3-4 minutes of light intensity physical movement, such as walking or stretching, will help.
- Allocate time for working and time for resting.
- Make time for doing things you enjoy.
- Take regular breaks from on-screen activities.
- Don’t use alcohol and drugs as a way of dealing with fear, anxiety, boredom and social isolation.
Read more on who.int
Be kind to yourself and others
Don’t expect too much of yourself on difficult days. Accept that some days you may be more productive than others.
Try to reduce how much you watch, read or listen to news that makes you feel anxious or distressed. Seek the latest information from trusted sources at specific times of the day.
Helping others can be good for you too. If you are able to, offer support to people in your community who may need it.
Read more on who.int
Reach out for help if you need it
Don’t hesitate to seek professional help if you think you need it. A good place to start is your local health worker. Help-lines can also be a source of support.