Around the globe, people are suddenly transitioning to remote work amid the COVID-19 pandemic. And employers are concerned about their employees’ productivity. But that concern may be blinding them to a potentially higher risk: employee burnout.
And in the current environment, the risk of burnout is substantial. COVID-19 has blurred the lines between work and non-work in novel ways. Many employees who are new to working online, are susceptible to eroding the boundaries between their personal and professional lives in potentially damaging ways.
Given our extraordinary situation, how can employees maintain adequate boundaries so necessary to be healthy individuals and productive workers? How can they “leave their work at the door” if they are no longer going out the door? How can they cope?
Burnout is produced by chronic work stress. It is generally characterized by emotional exhaustion, listlessness, and a loss of satisfaction with work. In more severe cases, it can lead to cardiovascular diseases and musculoskeletal pain.
Work stress activates our hormonal, metabolic, immune, and cardiovascular systems. When these physiological responses are triggered too often, or for too long, they don’t return to normal and may impair our body’s immune and inflammation responses.
Some of the most common employee burnout symptoms include:
Anxiety and depression
Anger and irritability
Indigestion, headaches, heart palpitations
Lack of motivation, degraded job performance
Cognitive issues, inability to focus, forgetfulness
Attempt to maintain time-oriented boundaries
Maintaining temporal boundaries is essential for personal well-being and productive work. This is exacerbated when so many workers are forced to integrate caring for their children or elderly parents during work hours.
In our current situation, maintaining a typical 9-to-5 schedule may be entirely unrealistic. Employees need to devise work schedules that will work best for them while maintaining respect for others who may have different time constraints and, thus, different schedules. The key is that boundaries need to be maintained within those schedules.
Maintain physical and social boundaries
In a classic paper, Blake Ashforth, of Arizona State University, described how people demarcate the transition from work to non-work roles via “boundary-crossing activities.” Putting on your work clothes, commuting from home to work—these are physical and social indicators that something has changed. You’ve transitioned from “home you” to “work you.”
Try to maintain these boundaries when working remotely. Put on your work clothes every morning. And consider replacing your morning commute with a walk to a nearby park before beginning to work.
Focus on your most important work
This is not the time for busywork. Workers should be devoting their energy to top-priority issues. They shouldn’t emphasize appearing productive, but rather prioritizing what is essential.
And working all the time, even on your most important tasks, isn’t the answer. Even before
COVID-19, employees found it difficult to carve out sufficient time to focus on their core work tasks. Now, with further fragmentation, it is even more difficult. So, in order to maximize productivity, keep the focus on what is essential.
Dealing with burnout is about recovering well from work. Recovery means finding the space and time to engage in activities that aren’t related to work or aren’t stressful. On a physiological level, recovery is returning cortisol (a vital stress hormone) to baseline levels. This results in feeling more enthusiastic and energetic about work.
Internal recovery is about providing brief reprieves from stress while you are working. This can include doing breathing exercises, switching tasks, or taking short breaks when you’re feeling mentally or physically exhausted. So, when you have a few moments to spare at work between tasks or meetings, use it to relax rather than checking your emails, social media, or having a stressful interpersonal interaction.
After work is the time for external recovery, instead of staying on top of your work and those unanswered emails. External recovery means doing any activities you enjoy, such as watching TV, reading, or socializing.
There are four types of external recovery experiences:
Psychological Detachment (taking your mind off of work)
Relaxation (walking in nature, listening to music, reading a book, or just sitting on the couch and doing nothing)
Mastery (taking advantage of doing things unrelated to work such as learning a skill, language or occupying yourself with a hobby)
Control (choosing how to spend your time and doing things the way that you want)
When burnout occurs, emotional exhaustion is typically the first thing to happen. It’s not only the easiest to identify, but generally, the easiest to change. So if you are feeling emotionally exhausted after work at night – and haven’t recovered by the morning – this is an indication that your recovery is incomplete.
Keep in mind that if you don’t have all kinds of time, you must carve out even a little time to do something that you find satisfying. External recovery has been shown to assist people to feel more engaged at work, more energetic and enthusiastic in their personal life, and acts as protection from the longer-term consequences of work stress and risk of employee burnout.
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