WFH Burnout Is Hitting Us Hard

Lynya Floyd
·5 min read

From Men's Health

WE'LL GIVE YOU the good news first: Surveys show that one side effect of the pandemic is that we’re all more productive. Whoop, whoop! The bad news: Some experts think it’s because so many of us are working longer hours. American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, Ph.D., first popularized the term burnout in the 1970s after observing overworked staffers at a free New York City–based health clinic. He characterized burnout, the feeling of extreme fatigue, as a response to overwhelming stress and expectations. During the 2000s, the word would be used to describe any feelings of frustration, not those solely caused by job stress, e.g., election burnout, workout burnout, the list goes on. But 2020 brought a new kind of burnout, as millions of Americans began working from home indefinitely. A year later, we’re really feeling the effects.

“The three signs of burnout are exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficiency,” explains San Francisco–based psychologist Jacinta M. Jiménez, Psy.D., author of The Burnout Fix. “And because society tells men they can’t be tired or inefficient, they often push through, and that exhaustion becomes anger or irritability.” Your tolerance takes a dip, and now you’re “annoyed by your coworkers or you insist the project you’re working on is stupid.” Burnout has also been linked to several serious health conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. To escape a burnout spiral, try these six sanity-saving tweaks to your routine.

Photo credit: Diego Patino
Photo credit: Diego Patino
Photo credit: DIEGO PATIÑO
Photo credit: DIEGO PATIÑO

If you do this:

Check your inbox from bed

Do this instead:

Take deep, focused breaths

Sure, getting a head start on work is well-intentioned, but it can set off your body’s stress response, says Jiménez. This can cause those feelings of early-morning dread and anxiety that fuel burnout. “Adding stressful stimuli into the mix when your cortisol levels are already high doesn’t set you up for starting your day off calm, focused, and centered,” she says. As an alternative, try one minute of deep, slow breathing before getting out of bed, which “hacks” your nervous system so that you feel calmer. If meditation, a morning run, yoga, or another soothing practice is more your speed, do that instead. Anything that helps you relax—and recognize when you’ve lost that chill later in the day—will be beneficial.

Photo credit: DIEGO PATIÑO
Photo credit: DIEGO PATIÑO

If you do this:

Wake up late

Do this instead:

Make time for a morning commute

Experts argue that imitating your pre-WFH habits can improve your mental health. “Through a behaviorist lens, all of the activities that constituted your prework routine primed your brain to begin the workday,” explains N.Y.C.–based clinical psychologist Sabrina Romanoff, Ph.D. “They are powerful gestures of association that calibrate your mind and body to transition to work mode.” She recommends a walk around the block to prepare for the day ahead. Aim to create other similar experiences from your prepandemic routine, like reading the newspaper.

Photo credit: DIEGO PATIÑO
Photo credit: DIEGO PATIÑO

If you do this:

Stay on Slack 24/7

Do this instead:

Create boundaries

When you work in an office, you have a physical end to your day once you leave your workspace. When you work from home, you might be tempted to keep working—with no end in sight. Research shows that one way to combat burnout is role compartmentalization, or simply creating boundaries. Look for ways to psychologically detach from work, such as shutting down your computer at the end of the day, muting your Slack notifications, minimizing work on the weekends, and changing into play clothes. London Business School and Cornell University researchers found that working on days off negatively affected motivation and could lead to lower overall job satisfaction. If you must, mentally reframing work on weekends as “work time” rather than “time off” can help stave off any loss of motivation.

Photo credit: DIEGO PATIÑO
Photo credit: DIEGO PATIÑO

If you do this:

Work like a hermit and become a recluse

Do this instead:

Make connections

Without a social working environment, staying in contact requires more effort—but it’s still important. Send a text message to a friend about playing fantasy football or plan a working lunch with a colleague, suggests Forrest Talley, Ph.D., a Folsom, California–based clinical psychologist. “Not only will they appreciate the gesture, but you will feel better for having had the interaction,” he says.

And recognize your and others’ wins, too. “We get a feel-good hit of dopamine in our brains from celebrating wins,” explains Jake Kahana, cofounder of Caveday, an online co-working platform. Drop a message into a Slack channel at work to broadcast your success.

Photo credit: DIEGO PATIÑO
Photo credit: DIEGO PATIÑO

If you do this:

Put off big projects

Do this instead:

Rearrange your routine

Another common side effect of lockdown is that many of us feel as if we have more time than we do, so we put off what we can. Don’t do it. In fact, Kahana recommends scheduling your most challenging tasks around the time you’ve had your first coffee. While study results vary, experts say your peak mental focus is somewhere between 10:00 and 11:00 a.m. But it’s crucial to adjust your expectations and acknowledge that productivity can drop off throughout the day. “Our brains are not machines,” says Kahana. “We can’t expect the same level of output when we continue to push ourselves all day long.”

Photo credit: DIEGO PATIÑO
Photo credit: DIEGO PATIÑO

If you do this:

Scroll on your smartphone after hours

Do this instead:

Recharge and reboot

“Resilience isn’t about how you endure,” says Jiménez. “It’s about how you recharge.” Unfortunately, many of us have gotten lazy about our leisure time. Instead of engaging in what experts describe as “true” leisure (like going for a run in the park), we engage in “compensatory” leisure (like having a beer late in the day) or “spillover” leisure (like scanning social media on the couch). “You need to focus on activities that fuel your soul and fill your capacity again,” says Jiménez. Spend time outside or plan a home workout—anything to get you moving, even if you’re stuck in the great indoors.

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