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How to Avoid Burnout When You're Working From Home (and Can't Leave)

Kiely Kuligowski
Kiely Kuligowski

Burnout is a serious result of prolonged, severe stress. Here's how to spot and avoid it.

  • Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion that is typically caused by excessive and prolonged stress.
  • Burnout is characterized by three main dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism (or less identification with your job functions) and feelings of reduced professional ability.
  • To avoid work burnout, you should set boundaries, change up your work environment, and take time for yourself.

Everyone has stressful days at work where they feel overwhelmed and exhausted by their tasks. But when this feeling becomes chronic or unavoidable no matter what you do, you may be experiencing job burnout. Burnout can cause people to feel constantly stressed, exhausted, and unable to cope with the demands of a job and life.

Because much of the country is currently under quarantine, thousands of workers have made the shift to remote work. This is adding significant stress in many ways: Employees have had to figure out how to make their jobs work remotely, balance working with round-the-clock child care, and deal with the general stresses of a crisis, such as whether their job will survive the economic downturn and if their loved ones will be healthy throughout the pandemic. All of these added stresses can contribute heavily to employee burnout.

Here's how to spot burnout and what you can do to avoid it.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion typically caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Job burnout, in particular, can involve a reduced sense of accomplishment and loss of personal identity or task ownership. Burnout may also present itself with physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomachaches as a result of stress.

Burnout is not an official medical diagnosis and can sometimes be linked to or exacerbated by other mental health conditions, such as depression.

Stress vs. burnout

Although stress and burnout have similar symptoms, they are two entirely different conditions. For instance, according to HelpGuide, while burnout is characterized by disengagement, stress is characterized by over-engagement. When you are stressed out, your emotions are overactive, while burnout causes emotions to become muted. Stress causes a lack of energy, while burnout causes a loss of motivation and hope. Stress is more likely to cause physical illness, while burnout causes mainly emotional damage.

Burnout vs. depression

According to Prevention.com, although burnout overlaps with depression, they are not the same condition. While burnout is essentially emotional exhaustion triggered by being overworked at your place of employment, depression is a mental health disorder that can be caused by any number of things. Given that burnout is typically triggered at work, working less or finding a new job may relieve burnout symptoms. However, depression is a mental health disorder that causes you to feel hopeless in all areas of your life, and it is often not relieved (no matter what life changes are made) until the disorder has been properly addressed.

According to Moodpath, these are the core differences between depression and burnout:

Depression:

  • An independent mental health condition
  • A result of biological and psychological symptoms that are often independent of one's life circumstances
  • Clearly defined symptoms

Burnout:

  • Not an independent condition; more of an additional diagnosis combined with other illnesses
  • A result of difficulties with managing one's life and career
  • Symptoms not clearly defined

Symptoms of burnout

Burnout has three main dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism (or less identification with your job functions) and feelings of reduced professional ability. Put more simply, if you feel drained, are starting to hate your job, and feel like you can't do your job well, you are showing signs of workplace burnout.

These are some other common signs of burnout:

  • Alienation from work-related activities. Burnout makes you view your job as a recurring, serious point of stress and frustration in your life, and it can cause you to develop cynicism around your work and the people you work with. This may cause you to emotionally distance yourself and feel numb regarding your work.

  • Physical symptoms. Burnout is a result of chronic stress, which often manifests itself in physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches and intestinal issues. You might experience changes in your sleep habits or appetite. Severe, prolonged stress has been shown to lower your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to physical illnesses like the cold and the flu.

  • Emotional exhaustion. Burnout will push your emotional capabilities past their limit, making you feel drained, unable to cope and tired. You might also feel detached or isolated from other people close to you, like family members and co-workers.

  • Weaker performance. Because burnout causes you to feel physically and mentally incapable of work, it almost invariably decreases the quality of your work, which can compound the existing symptoms. You may lack focus and creativity, and feel negative about all your tasks.

  • Behavioral changes. You may find yourself withdrawing from your responsibilities, isolating yourself from others, taking your frustrations out on loved ones, or skipping work. Some individuals experiencing burnout may also use alcohol, drugs or food to cope with what they are feeling.

The 5 stages of burnout

Burnout manifests differently in each individual, so the signs and symptoms may vary. However, these are the five most commonly observed stages:

  1. Honeymoon phase. When we start a new job or task, we often experience high job satisfaction and motivation to do good work. During this phase, you might feel a strong commitment to the tasks at hand, a desire to prove yourself, lots of creativity, optimism and plenty of energy.

  2. The onset of stress. The second stage is when you begin to feel some stress and lose some of your initial optimism. You might feel common stress symptoms such as anxiety, fatigue, forgetfulness, headaches, and an inability to focus or sleep, and you may avoid social interaction or decision-making.

  3. Chronic stress. This stage is a marked change in your stress levels, where you are experiencing severe stress on a frequent basis. Your symptoms from stage two may become more intense, and you might also experience apathy, aggression, feeling pressured or out of control, persistent tiredness, resentment, or social withdrawal. You might take up escapist activities like drugs and alcohol or excessive eating.

  4. Burnout. Stage four marks the point where symptoms become critical and carrying out your life as it was before is no longer possible, making this the stage where you should seek intervention. Symptoms include behavioral changes, chronic headaches or stomach problems, neglect of personal needs, a desire to "drop out" of society or life, feelings of emptiness inside, significant self-doubt, energy depletion, chronic fatigue, and a pessimistic outlook on life.

  5. Habitual or chronic burnout. The last stage of burnout means that the symptoms are so embedded in your life that you are likely to experience a serious physical or emotional problem rather than sporadically experiencing workplace stress or burnout. Chronic burnout symptoms may include chronic mental or physical fatigue and depression.

How can working from home contribute to burnout?

Working from home, when done correctly, can be a great way to balance the demands of work and your personal life, but it takes careful consideration and implementation of boundaries. Because the coronavirus pushed many people who don't normally work from home into doing so, you likely came into this situation without those boundaries in place, which may make you feel isolated or as though you need to be available at all times.

"The isolation and ability to work anytime and anywhere can definitely lead to burnout if you're not careful," said Angela Mastrogiacomo, owner of Muddy Paw PR. "Because remote workers don't have that community support and energy to draw off of, and because their home has now become their office, it can become easy to tell yourself you'll just work a little bit more, and before you know it, you've been working 14 hours straight."

Working from home, especially during quarantine, can also mean trying to get work done while caring for children or other family members as well as dealing with external stressors, which can leave you burning the candle at both ends and blur – or completely erase – the line between work and home.

"Oftentimes, workers' workspaces are in their living rooms, which makes it difficult to take breaks and separate from your workspace," said Drew Cheneler, founder of SimpleMoneyLyfe. "Add on the distractions of family and watching the kids, and it's hard to stay focused and enjoy a true work-life balance."

Additional causes of burnout

In addition to working from home, according to Mayo Clinic, these are some other potential causes of burnout:

  • Lack of control. If you do not have sufficient resources to properly complete your daily duties, this could result in burnout. Having no say in your own working hours, days off, workload, assignments, etc. can also cause burnout.

  • Extremes of activities. If your job or life is either extremely mundane or extremely hectic, you have to work harder to focus, potentially resulting in burnout.

  • Work-life imbalance. A major cause of burnout is trouble finding a healthy balance between your work and home life.

  • Dysfunctional dynamics. Another major cause of burnout is working in a dysfunctional environment. For instance, if you work with people who tease you or take advantage of you, this is likely to result in burnout if these issues are not addressed and corrected.

Tips for avoiding burnout

There are steps you can take early on to avoid occupational burnout and keep it from affecting your personal or professional life. The best thing to do is to be proactive and build up your mental resilience.

  • Set boundaries. If you are new to remote work, the first thing you should do is set firm boundaries around your working hours, when you can be contacted about work matters, and whether you need to isolate yourself from family members while you work.

  • Break up your day. "Break your days up into blocks, and make sure you give yourself one or two 30-minute breaks," said Cheneler. "This will allow you to tend to chores around the house or deal with family. A break is also great to clear the mind and refocus on your project or task." Getting outside for a few minutes, if possible, can also relieve stress and give your mind a break. Take a walk, even if it's just up the driveway for the mail or around the block.

  • Develop strong coping mechanisms from the start. If you are generally prone to stress or have just entered a new job that you know will be stressful, it's imperative to develop strong coping mechanisms to keep the stress from growing into burnout syndrome. The American Medical Association recommends deepening your emotional self-awareness, learning how to manage your emotions, practicing empathy, staying connected with team members and learning conflict management techniques.

  • Take time for yourself. It is vital that you allow yourself the space and time to do things you enjoy. Whether that's taking a walk, reading a book, or putting your laptop away in a drawer for the entire weekend, doing things unrelated to work can have a major beneficial effect when it's time to return to work the next day.

  • Eat a balanced, nutritious diet. According to Healthline, a balanced diet can also help you avoid burnout. Eating foods filled with omega-3 fatty acids can also be a great way to boost your mood.

  • Get sufficient sleep. A good night's sleep is a great way to ward off burnout. By avoiding caffeine before bed, establishing a bedtime ritual, and limiting your screen time in bed, you will get a better quality of sleep.
Kiely Kuligowski
Kiely Kuligowski,
business.com Writer
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Kiely is a staff writer based in New York City. She worked as a marketing copywriter after graduating with her bachelor’s in English from Miami University (OH) and now writes on small business, social media, and marketing. You can reach her on Twitter or by email.