Working from home? Burnout lurks there, too
by Brent Roy
“I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it." ~ Maya Angelou
Nearly three years ago, I experienced job-related burnout. I believed taking time for extra rest would return me to normal, but I soon learned burnout is much more serious than I’d thought.
Burnout is a state of chronic stress that leads to:
- physical and emotional exhaustion
- cynicism and detachment
- feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment
The term was introduced into our language in 1974 but it wasn’t until May 2019 until the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognized burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
Can the spectre of burnout lurk in the perceived safety of your home office? Yes.
For the past several months, I have been coaching many people via video from their offices. In March 2020, most of these employees were told to take their laptops and monitors home and set them up there. Until further notice, they were told, that will be their new workspace.
Once the initial anxiety some experienced was managed, I discovered that overcoming breakdowns of work-life boundaries, communication, and technology were the common challenges each of my clients struggled to overcome.
According to Maslach and Leiter's, The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Burnout and What to do about it, there are six causes of burnout: work overload, insufficient reward, breakdown of community, lack of control, absence of fairness and conflicting values. Each of the three struggles at-home workers complained of is directly correlated to at least three burnout causes during the current work-from-home lockdown:
Work Overload/Work-life balance: Rather than feeling guilty, some of my clients learned to be grateful for the gift of time they’ve suddenly been granted. They recognized the 45-minute morning and evening commutes were and are their time. Some took advantage of the gift to study, learn a language or re-engage in an old hobby.
Several clients had never worked from home and had no defined office space, instead setting up their laptops at the kitchen table, invading their personal eating space. To separate work and personal time, one client would physically remove herself from the kitchen table and sit on the couch in the living room for short breaks throughout the day. This was a signal to her that "this physical space is mine," and gave her a chance to meditate, read, or just rest.
Others learned to log in and log out when they normally would at the office. Silencing the phone and shutting down the laptop and tucking them away at the end of the workday removed the physical temptation to check in after hours.
Breakdown of Community/Communication: While spontaneous pop-ins are more difficult when working from home, one of my clients decided to “schedule” these formerly impromptu meetings with her boss. She recognized she needed two 10-15-minute check-ins a week by video to problem-solve some of the issues arising from meetings and emails. She scoured her boss’ calendar for mutually acceptable times and at her next scheduled one-on-one, she pitched the idea of “communication drop-ins” Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4 and the boss loved it!
Lack of control (technological issues): Lagging Internet connections and the equipment employees have been given aren’t likely to improve during the lockdown, rendering them outside of the control of the employee. Agreeing on rules of etiquette among co-workers, however, is something that can be worked out quite simply when everyone agrees.
For example, sharing simple rules on best practices for Zoom video meetings in advance and staying consistent gives control back to the employees and makes for smoother meetings.
Clearly communicating through email is extremely important while working at home. Following simple tips when writing emails while working from home can avoid the uncertainty the receiver sometimes feels when the message isn’t written well.
At first, working from home can seem like a nice break from the routine, but the novelty tends to wear off quickly. When communication, technological and boundary-bending issues aren’t recognized and dealt with quickly, burnout is never far behind—even in the comfort and safety of home.
Burnout occurs when your balance between life and work is tipped too far toward work. Here’s a free tool you can use to find out where you stand.
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Brent is a life and leadership coach helping exhausted leaders reclaim their balance, so their family life and careers bring equal amounts of joy most of the time.