Your home is meant to be a safe space: a place you can relax and recharge. However, with many working from home right now, our ‘work’ and ‘personal’ lives can feel like they’re slowly seeping into one.
It’s easy to accidentally work longer hours than you might normally, because your laptop is right there and you’re not drawing a line under the day by physically leaving the office. This could be leading to burnout – the phenomenon where you become physically and emotionally exhausted from all the demands modern life puts upon you.
A new study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine has looked into the link between burnout and depressive symptoms. "We found that the factors that drive burnout are much more closely related to the factors that drive depressive symptoms than previously realised," says co-author Lisa Rotenstein MD, an internal medicine resident at Harvard Medical School/Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Last year, burnout was medically recognised as a condition by the World Health Organisation, which defines it as "a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed". They cited three main symptoms: "Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy."
You might not expect to get burnout when working from home – after all, you’re in your safe space. However, it could just as easily occur as when you’re in the office.
"There seems to be a stigma related to working from home, a somewhat archaic notion that because you’re in the comfort of your own home, that you’re not working as hard as you would if you were in the office," says nutritionist and burnout coach Rosie Millen.
"Just because you are in your comfy clothes, it does not mean you should feel any guilt. It’s so important not to overexert yourself to try and prove your productivity and counteract any feelings of guilt. When working from home it is easy to stay on your laptop well into the evening and add too much to your plate during these times.
"Never again will we have this opportunity to look after ourselves and rest and slow down while we can. I know a lot of people who are working even more to overcompensate, but this is not the answer!"
Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director of Healthspan, thinks the pandemic could feed into people experiencing burnout, as lockdown can contribute to stress from "uncertain job security, financial fears, worry about catching the virus if working on the front line, frustration at not being able to interact personally with colleagues or even from lack of stimulation and boredom."
She explains: "This can lead to characteristic symptoms of energy depletion and exhaustion, feeling increasingly distanced mentally from your job, as well as negative thoughts about not performing your job to the best of your ability.
Feeling burned out? You're not alone. ?— Dr. Judy Ho (@DrJudyHo) April 28, 2020
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"On top of these fears is the difficulty of juggling work with caring for others who are isolated at home with you – the pressure of homeschooling, for example, or of caring for those who are vulnerable due to age or health issues."
Even though it can be difficult to stay positive, Brewer says: "Try to switch around your thinking so that, for example, rather than being ‘stuck’ at home, consider yourself as being ‘safe’ at home. Other positives might include not having to endure a stressful daily commute which can, in itself, contribute to professional burnout."
Now more than ever it’s important to separate work and home life. These are Millen’s day-to-day tips for avoiding burnout when working from home…
Write a to do list each morning. "Don’t overdo it. Be sensible about not over-exerting yourself and doing too much, because this is the perfect time to slow down and take care of yourself."
Take mini breaks throughout the day. "They can be as simple as step outside, going in the garden, having a cup of tea, connecting with a loved one. Studies show you are more productive with more breaks."
Eat well. "Opt for nourishing ingredients and cook meals from scratch. Organisation and preparation are key! You have time to take a breather and cook a nutrient dense meal. Remember the proteins, healthy fats and vegetables and make your own healthy snacks. Taking the time to really be mindful of your eating habits is great for boosting energy but it also means you can use this time for yourself as a great way to switch off."
Make sure you exercise. "A run in the park or a workout in your garden or living room is awesome. You can tune into online classes or fitness apps too."
Put your phone on aeroplane mode while you work. "Perhaps for two hours at a time, then take a 10-minute break and check in on the world. Try not to be glued to the news as this may lead to increased anxiety and lack of focus."
Reward yourself in the evenings. "Take a hot bath, light a candle, have one glass of wine, FaceTime a loved one or use house party with some friends for a virtual dinner. Choose a good movie to watch or simply put on a face mask or sheet mask. These small acts of self-care help signal the end of your working day and help to relax and restore you for a good night’s sleep."