If you recently transitioned to remote work and feel stressed like never before, you’re not alone. When it comes to work-related stress, working from home poses a whole different set of challenges than working in a corporate office space. Chances are, no one told you how to avoid burnout working from home — but now, you need to learn it to stay sane.
Many people imagine that working remotely makes the quest for work-life balance easier. In reality, remote workers are more prone to burnout than their office-based peers. What’s more, this tendency has increased in the last few years.
What are the factors contributing to work-from-home burnout? How can you recognize the first signs of emotional exhaustion that precede it? And, most importantly, what steps can you take to prevent work-from-home burnout? We’ll answer these questions (and more) below.
What Is Burnout?
First off, let’s clarify what burnout means. To be sure, it’s not the same as stress, depression, anxiety, or any other mental health condition.
In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized burnout as a “syndrome … resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” WHO states clearly that the term “burnout” should only be used in the occupational context and not to describe other areas of life.
As per the WHO, the three main burnout symptoms are:
- Feeling exhausted and low on energy
- Growing detachment from one’s job, often accompanied by resentment or cynicism
- Not feeling effective or accomplished at work.
It’s common to think that the above result merely from overwork and too many stressors in one’s workday. These are, indeed, typical causes of burnout. But, they aren’t the only ones.
The Main Causes of Burnout
Ayala Pines and Elliot Aronson, the authors of Career Burnout: Causes and Cures, refer to burnout as “a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in emotionally demanding situations.” This is a clear description of how a burnt-out person feels — and it also hints at the cause of burnout.
But what does “long-term involvement in emotionally demanding situations” mean in practice? It’s best to ask employees who’ve experienced it. According to nationwide research carried out in the U.S. by Eagle Hill Consulting, these are the most frequently cited reasons for burnout:
- Too big workload (47% of respondents)
- Balancing work and personal life (39% of respondents)
- Lack of communication, feedback, and support (37% of respondents)
- Time pressures and a lack of clarity around expectations (30% of respondents)
- Performance expectations (28% of respondents)
These can be big challenges for anyone. However, they tend to get even bigger when you work from home and by yourself.
Let’s look at how the above problems named in the survey can play out in a day of a remote employee. Let’s call her Alice.
Deciding How Much You Take On
Alice is a freelancer. She helps small entrepreneurs build their online brands. That includes designing their websites, writing brand stories, and then communicating them to the audiences. Because she offers quite a complex service and works remotely, it’s often hard for her to gauge how much work is too much.
When working remotely and on your own, you often lose sense of how long certain work tasks “should” take you. Because you have no point of reference from co-workers, you may lead yourself to believe that you can accomplish more than is actually realistic.
It’s easy to imagine how this can lead to being chronically overworked, neglecting self-care, and as a result, burning out.
Boundaries Between Work and Personal Life
Alice’s office is set up in her bedroom. When she wakes up, she immediately sees her working station. Conversely, while she works, she’s constantly aware of her comfy bed just behind her back and the proximity of her kitchen that offers snacks whenever she feels bored.
For most work-from-home (WFH) folks, it’s hard to set boundaries between work and personal time — and a big part of the challenge lies in the spatial proximity. When workspace blends with rest space, family space, and personal space, it’s hard to separate one from the other. Because of that, workplace stress easily colors your personal life.
Getting Enough Human Contact
When Alice transitioned to a home office after years of working alongside co-workers in a company, this was the biggest change. Within weeks, she noticed mood swings and drops in motivation. She was feeling lonely. She tried to make up for that during evening catch-ups with her partner, but a big part of her day still felt dull and empty.
This is something office workers may take for granted, but WFH employees appreciate immediately: We all need everyday, routine human interactions to thrive. Not having that need met may induce feelings of loneliness. What’s more, online conversations can’t always make up for it. Zoom fatigue is a real thing, and it can leave you feeling even more depleted.
Time Management and Work Schedule
One thing to know about Alice is that she has a daughter. Because Alice works remotely, her daughter is home with her in the afternoon and during school breaks. Alice feels really lucky — she can be with her child more than other parents she knows. But, it also means that she’s constantly juggling work tasks and childcare.
Even if you don’t have children, like Alice, scheduling work time without being distracted by household chores, personal errands, etc., can feel tricky. It may be tempting to also do laundry and prep for dinner while you work from home. This may encourage you to fill your day with small and easy tasks and avoid the big but important ones — which typically hurts your long-term performance at work.
Accountability Without Beating Yourself Up
Finally, there’s a question of expectations. Alice often finds that she oscillates between two extremes. One is beating herself up for not doing good enough work or making less progress than she hoped for. On the other extreme, she struggles to stay accountable to herself and spends whole days procrastinating, telling herself that she still has loads of time.
For someone who works in the office, managing expectations is usually easier. There’s a built-in accountability system in the form of team meetings, co-workers you collaborate with, and supervision from your manager. But when you work on your own, it can be harder to set fair expectations and then meet them.
When you continuously fail at that, it can lead to a lot of frustration, resentment, and eventually, feeling burnt out.
How to Avoid Burnout Working From Home
The tricky part about burnout is that it’s hard to prevent it before it happens. Usually, it’s only when you start experiencing symptoms that you realize something about your work needs to change.
The good news, however, is that burnout isn’t black or white. It exists on a continuum. According to various sources and frameworks, we can distinguish three, five, or even t12 stages of burnout. At different stages you’ll spot different signs of burnout. They become more severe the further you move along the burnout continuum.
If you catch yourself before things become too serious, you can bring yourself back to balance more easily. How? The first step could be instilling one or more of these healthy habits into your work-from-home schedule.
1. Remember the Perks of Remote Work
Our first tip is a mindset shift, which can then be turned into a habit. It’s easy to focus on the downsides of working remotely, especially when burnout appears on the horizon. But can you also see how remote work may support your well-being?
For many people, the main perks of working from home include:
- Saving time on commuting
- Being able to eat healthy home-cooked meals
- Spending their lunch break with their family
- Working without distractions
- Creating their own work schedule
Try to remember what you appreciate about working from home, and make it a habit to pay attention to those things. Chances are, this will make it easier to capitalize on them to improve your mood and well-being.
2. Reward and Appreciate Yourself
Recognizing yourself when you’ve done a good job can work wonders for your mental health. It creates a positive feedback loop in your mind, which in turn helps you to repeat beneficial behaviors and work strategies. Dr. Irvan Joseph explained in his TED talk how appreciation can also contribute to your overall confidence.
One study showed that teams who exchange ample positive feedback and appreciation tend to have better performance metrics. The best-performing teams in the study communicated, on average, 5.6 positive comments for each negative one.
Working from home, you don’t have a co-worker next to you to pat you on the back for your achievements. But this doesn’t need to stop you from showing appreciation to yourself. Learn to recognize even the smallest wins and remember that no one is perfect!
3. Create Opportunities for Human Contact
Lack of human connection is arguably one of the biggest challenges when it comes to avoiding burnout working from home. To counteract this, you need to get into a habit of proactively seeking contact with others. Otherwise, you may be missing out on human interaction just when you need it the most.
One way of doing it is planning check-ins with your loved ones, friends, and family members. It can be as simple as a five-minute call to ask your sibling how they feel. You could also make a quick trip to a nearby coffee shop and chat with the barista.
If you’re working as part of a remote team, initiate contact with them by asking for feedback or help. We all need someone to chip in on what we’re working on, and a WFH setup doesn’t change that.
4. Make Time for Breaks
Make time for breaks, and make them unnegotiable. Many remote workers feel like taking some time to unwind during the workday is an indulgence. But in fact, it’s a necessity. We now know that taking time to detach from work (not just physically but also mentally) improves performance rather than harming it.
If you have trouble taking breaks, simply factor them into your work schedule. Always know when your next break is coming. You can also use a time-tracking software like Rize to notify you when you’ve been working too long. This will help you avoid burnout working from home.
5. Create a Dedicated Workspace
The human mind relies on spatial cues. It can easily associate certain places with corresponding activities. If you can create a dedicated workspace at home, this will make it easier for the mind to differentiate between professional and personal contexts and keep the work-life boundaries.
However, we know that not everyone can afford a separate space just for work. Also, the home office tends to move around the house, especially if you’re juggling non-work tasks in between and carrying your laptop with you.
If you can’t set one workspace and stick to it, try to at least keep some of your living spaces work-free. This way, your mind will know the difference between work and leisure environments, and you’ll be less prone to burnout.
Track Your Rest and Work Hours to Avoid Burnout
A key part of how to avoid burnout working from home is keeping your work hours in check. Studies show that remote employees tend to work longer hours. It can be harder to stop when there’s no office to leave because you’re already at home.
Setting yourself a hard cut-off time to finish work is something we’ve been advocating for a while. But if at the end of the day you feel like you’ve not done enough, it may be tempting to work longer. When you do that regularly, you put yourself at a higher risk of burnout.
This is when tracking your work and rest time comes in handy. By using a time tracker, you can be sure how many hours you spent working, and whether your feeling of not working enough is actually rooted in reality. You can get a clearer picture of how you actually spend your time — not how you’re imagining you spent it.
Not sure if a time tracker is right for you? Sign up for a 14-day free trial with Rize, so you can give it a go, risk free.