Working from home is hard under ordinary circumstances. Add in anxiety around the coronavirus pandemic, the fact that you've lost the physical separation between "work" and "life," plus the emotions around having a job where you can work from home in an economy where so many cannot, and you have a recipe for burnout.
"Change can be a positive experience, but for many, ... simply not working in the same manner, in the same location for the same hours can cause additional stress," clinical psychologist Dr. Joshua Klapow Ph.D., tells Bustle. "All of these factors mean our job becomes more challenging, more taxing on our system, more difficult psychologically and logistically, and more stressful."
"Burnout can occur when any individual is exposed to prolonged and often excessive stress," Dr. Jasleen Chhatwal M.D., chief medical officer for Sierra Tucson Treatment Center, a mental health rehabilitation facility, tells Bustle. "It’s an internal crisis manifested by a lack of control and efficacy in our external world."
Burnout is defined by three components according to psychologists: complete exhaustion and inability to cope, cynicism about work, and reduced performance both at home and in the workplace. In prolonged social-distancing scenarios, Dr. Chhatwal says, "Fears are likely to intensify, leading to increased anxiety and lowered enjoyment of work. Lack of control and social isolation increase the risk of burnout exponentially."
Right now, medical professionals, grocery store workers, and other essential personnel are at particularly high risk of burnout, experts say, as they're at the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. But even if you feel grateful to be able to work from home during this time, you can still be vulnerable. Bloomberg reported in March 2020 that remote workers in the U.S., Spain, Australia, and elsewhere are working on average two hours extra per day as a result of social-distancing policies. Without the benefit of set start and finishing times, sending "just one more email" can be too tempting — or worse, can be something your manager now expects.
The loneliness of doing your job from home can exacerbate stress you're already feeling. "Isolation can be depressing," Dr. Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D., a neuropsychologist, tells Bustle. "Many people are suffering from sadness, anxiety, anguish, frustration, and boredom during their quarantine or social-distancing efforts. This is compounded by the general anxiety brought on by health risks, career or employment layoffs, and public confusion."
Dr. Klapow recommends changing expectations about productivity, goals, breaks, and when you start and finish. "Don’t hold yourself to a set of rules that may not work in the home environment and expect that you will be at the same level of productivity," he says. Be mindful of how your body and brain are feeling. Are you getting headaches after hours of screen time? Do you need to get up and move? Be transparent about your physical needs during this time and try to set an example for the rest of your team; if you need to log off for an hour to supervise a child's remote learning, be upfront about it.
Dr. Hafeez also suggests using video chats over phone calls for all conversations, work or social, because anything that keeps us connected right now will help mental health. "The social interaction that video chats provide can be crucial in helping our minds cope with the confusing and worrisome times we are living in," she says. Dr. Chhatwal also suggests talking to your company's human resources team if you're noticing signs of burnout; they might be able to direct you to your Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which can help you find mental health support.
"We all can benefit from knowing that we have others who understand what we are experiencing," she says. In times like these, human connections, support, and clear boundaries can help a great deal to sustain us.
Dr. Jasleen Chhatwal M.D., CMO for Sierra Tucson Treatment Center
Dr. Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., clinical psychologist
Dr. Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D., neuropsychologist