Burnout at work is a real phenomenon we should all be aware of. It’s a serious syndrome of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. If someone is experiencing high rates of all three at work, they are likely suffering from burnout. They need to take action to avoid burnout.
There is convincing evidence that knowledge workers who have transitioned to working from home are experiencing burnout at a higher rate during the covid-19 pandemic. What knowledge workers have experienced working from home cannot compare with the experience of health professionals working in proximity to covid-19 patients, many times without adequate PPE. Those folks know about exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. What we’ve been through during this time in history does not compare to what many have experienced.
Work From Home Burnout
That said, the pandemic has exacerbated burnout in many industries, even in tech. Although folks have enjoyed more time for focus work and a lack of commute time, these changes have come with a price. And, much of what we have lost could lead to burnout.
Loss of Connection
We’ve lost contact with colleagues. We don’t have the ease of communication we had before the pandemic. We have to leverage lots of digital tools, and none work as well as being together in the same place. Each is like sand introduced into the mechanism of communication. The more we use them and the longer we use them, the less the mechanism works.
Loss of Routine
Our routines have all been turned on their heads. The things we used to do to prepare ourselves for work are gone. Natural boundaries of home and work blur as we work on our kitchen tables, couches, and even from our beds. The time we had between home and work to think, be quiet, and focus has been taken away. The commute from the breakfast nook to the office doesn’t add the quiet it used to.
Many of us are constantly coping with distractions at home. Parents of young children naturally look to attend to their needs. At home, things that come up can seem urgent enough to require attention immediately. Without a workplace or co-workers around, we have to exercise more of our self-control to stay on task in our work.
Self-control is like carbon dioxide in soda. When the bubbles are inside the soda, they’re kept together by the pressure of the surrounding liquid. As soon as they rise to the surface and into the less dense air around the drink, though, they pop and dissipate. Before this pandemic, many of us felt we were focused and controlled. But, our co-workers and our workplace were actually keeping us focused and controlled. Now we have to exercise much more willpower than we did before just to get stuff done. This requires more mental and emotional effort to execute at work.
Non-Ideal Work Environment
Our homes aren’t purpose-built for the work we do. In early-stage innovation work, we make liberal use of face-to-face communication, whiteboards, sticky notes, and other hands-on tools. The fact is that I don’t have at home what I need to do my job. So I have to make do with other means, and I largely need to figure it out myself.
All these things exacerbate our feeling of burnout. They weaken our sense of efficacy, they are mentally and emotionally exhausting, and as they drag on, they can push us toward cynicism.
Take Preventative Measures
However, many of us aren’t in that place yet. With a few small adjustments to our lives, we can find a way to survive and thrive as we traverse this pandemic.
Since March of 2020, I have felt all those things at different times. Here are things I’ve been doing to avoid burnout and stay sharp:
1. Practice mindfulness.
In retrospect, it was a brilliant move for Shawn, Brittany, and me to attend the SIYLI mindfulness seminar in February of 2020. After dabbling in mindfulness for years, the seminar helped me focus my mindfulness practice for the last 18 months.
At the moment, I schedule my practice into my calendar, and I follow it closely. I spend 15 minutes investing in myself by reading about mindfulness theory and practice. I also spend 10 minutes practicing mindfulness every day. As I’d consider myself to be a beginner, I leverage Sam Harris’s Waking Up guided meditations.
Many services offer mindfulness practices and guided meditations. Experiment and find out what works for you.
2. Shake up the routine.
Personally, I find that routines can help promote discipline and focus. However, too much of a good thing can be detrimental. As we shut down social interactions outside the home early last year, I found that my whole life was one big routine with little variety. My work routines used to be a change of pace from the dynamic reality of my personal life. When that got eliminated, I discovered that my work routines got stale and boring.
As a result, I found ways to make my work life more dynamic. I tried out different working hours. I tried inserting a big gap into the middle of my workday. I mixed up the tools I was leveraging to get work done. I’d try anything to freshen things up.
I didn’t necessarily keep new routines that didn’t work as well as the old ones. But, shaking up my routine helped bring new focus and engagement I’d previously felt ebbing away.
3. Stay connected in safe ways.
As my colleague Jesse Hill recently noted, work is more than just getting stuff done. It’s also people.
Throughout the pandemic, I went out of my way to continue building social capital and staying connected with the people I choose to share my work life with. I went on walks with others in all four of Michigan’s wonderful seasons. We’ve had socially distanced get-together’s in our driveway with many of the people I work with. It’s amazing what a couple of drinks and a bonfire can do to your personal morale.
I’ve found that in-person social connections are much more effective than social connections over Zoom. The early pandemic “Zoom happy hour” was great at the time, but it doesn’t hold a candle to a real-life connection. Find what you are comfortable with at your stage in covid-19 precautions, and invite people to come along. I have been surprised by how invigorating it has been.
4. Stay active.
Many of us fail to stay active. As a country, we are chronically inactive despite the fact that physical activity could prevent one in 10 premature deaths. According to Dr. Ruth Petersen (Director of CDC’s Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity Division), “If you could package physical activity into a pill, it would be the most effective drug on the market.” There are also strong links between lack of physical activity and depression risk.
Staying active doesn’t need to look like a crazy athletic regimen. Start small. Take a walk for five minutes. Do one of the many seven-minute workouts you can find online.
Personally, I’ve doubled down on powerlifting during the pandemic. I’ve found my workout routine to be a great break from work and life. I can focus on one activity for a period of time and forget about everything else.
5. Be Generous
Take time to do things for others. I’ve found that taking the focus off myself has helped me re-engage with what’s important in life.
It’s very cliché, but I took up bread-making during the pandemic. One of the great things about making sourdough bread is that you end up making more than one family can eat before it goes bad. You’ve got to be generous with your bread! So last summer, I started making about four loaves a week. I kept one for me and my family, and I gave the other three loaves away. It turns out just about everyone loves a loaf of fresh bread.
As I hand-delivered many of these loaves all over Ann Arbor, I got to connect, albeit briefly, with family, friends, and coworkers I hadn’t seen in months. I think this generosity was better for me than it was for anyone else. It allowed me to bring a little joy and happiness to others in a time that was full of anxiety, fear, loss, and sadness.
Covid-19 Lessons for Avoiding Burnout
As the pandemic winds down, many of our lives are changing. We’re getting back to the office and back to socializing. Heck, I have a happy hour scheduled next week with a good friend. I hope that these pandemic lessons will help me avoid burnout as covid-19 becomes less a part of our lives and more a part of our lived histories.