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How to Handle Work-From-Home Burnout
work from home burnout

Are you fed up with the whole working-from-home thing? Maybe you’re running low on enthusiasm and you notice your productivity is falling. Or maybe it’s hard to stomach one more Zoom meeting, or one more email from your boss. If so, you may be experiencing symptoms of burnout.

Many people used to fantasize about being able to work from home. The zero commute, more time with family, and easy access to the comforts of home have a lot of appeal. But for some, the reality of working from home has been different than they imagined. No commute also means no boundaries between work and home; while we’re never “at work,” we’re also never really away from it. For parents of school-aged kids, working from home also meant dealing with the joys of home schooling while trying to act like a responsible professional. The challenges continue now that school is out for the summer. Taken together, it’s all adding up to the perfect recipe for burnout.

Years ago I realized what it meant to be burned out. I was closing up my office at the end of another draining week, and tried to look forward to the weekend ahead. What difference does a weekend make? I heard myself ask. I’ll just have to come back on Monday.

That sentiment captures a lot of the burnout experience. Downtime from work feels nonrestorative. Even a week or two of vacation may be inadequate to restore our energy and enthusiasm. Other common symptoms include:

  • Lack of enthusiasm
  • Irritability and impatience
  • Changes in attitude, especially becoming cynical
  • Difficulty generating interest
  • Being easily distracted
  • Declining productivity
  • Using alcohol and other substances to cope

It’s better to catch the signs of burnout as early as possible. The longer it goes on, the longer it can take to recover. Recovery may be especially delayed if we’ve given up important areas of our lives, like exercise and socializing. I was amazed at how long my own symptoms of burnout lingered. I had assumed that once I scaled back my work hours, I’d quickly return to my old self. I did start to feel better pretty soon, but it was months before I was feeling one hundred percent.

Burnout happens when our account is overdrawn, so to speak—mentally, physically, and emotionally. If you’re trending toward burnout, or are already there, look for ways to decrease your expenditures and replenish your funds. These practices can help to renew your mind, body, and spirit.

Create Boundaries Around Work. If possible, set aside a specific place where you work, and only work there. For example, do your work at a desk, or on your screened-in porch. This way your mind can take a break when you enter other spaces.

Spend Time Away from Screens. Time on screens leads to more time on screens. We open our laptop to write an email and check social media. We get on a Zoom call and then read the news. Now that almost everything is online, it’s easy to be on a screen all day. I’ve found that that I’m logging more screen time in quarantine, between writing, meetings, online workouts, and ordering food. Block out times when you put screens away, like mealtime and when going for a walk. You’ll be more present for the experience, and for anyone you might be with. Also consider unplugging your WiFi after a certain time in the evening to make it less likely you’ll go online.

Tend to Your Physical Health. Our health tends to suffer when we’re burned out. Part of the fallout I experienced from burnout was from giving up exercise for months. I remember the night it started—I’d been working till 9 pm or so (again), and thought about running the next morning. I just can’t do one more thing I have to do, I told myself.

Find ways to move every day. Your body will thank you. Also tend to your diet, eating as many wholesome foods as possible. Avoid excessive alcohol, sugar, and highly processed foods like crackers and chips. The effects of diet may not be immediately obvious, but will make a big difference over time.

Prioritize Sleep. Protect time and space for sleep as much as possible. Give yourself the time in bed you need, and be consistent with your sleep schedule. You’ll be aligning your circadian rhythm, which is crucial for solid sleep. And good sleep is essential for recovery—and pretty much everything else.

Get Outside. Being inside all the time can be surprisingly draining. And the more we’re inside, the less inclined we may be to go outdoors. Plan regular time outside every day. Go for a walk, sit in your backyard, eat lunch outside. Even a few minutes can restore your spirits.

Manage Optional Stress. Some stressors are unavoidable, while others are optional. Look for ways to lower your daily stress load. Maybe that means turning off the news. Maybe it means not cramming as much into your schedule. Or it might mean limiting contact with people who wind you up. Less stress means more opportunity to recharge. 

Say “No” More Often. Why did I agree do to this?” I’ve often asked myself in frustration as I’ve looked at my calendar. It’s like my past self wanted to punish its future self by committing to something I didn’t want to do. In truth, we often avoid saying “No” when we want to because “Yes” is almost always the easier answer. At least in the short run. Plus, we consistently overestimate how much time we’ll have in the future, and end up overbooking ourselves. When you’re tempted to say yes to something you don’t want to do (or do want to do but don’t have the time), think about your future self. Make the decision they’ll thank you for.

Find What Brings You Alive. Fires burn out for lack of fuel. What sets you on fire? What fuels your passion? Notice what activities fill you up and which ones drain you. Pay attention for moments in the day when you feel most awake and alive. Then do more of those enlivening activities. Because it’s hard to feel burned out when you’re excited to greet the day.

Ask What Your Spirit Craves. Being burned out is not just a physical and mental experience. It also drains our spiritual reserves, leaving us feeling flat and disconnected. When we’re feeling dispirited, we can ask what our spirit is longing for. Is it a sense of meaning? Closer connections? A deeper knowing that we’re fundamentally loved and valued? Recovering from burnout might mean more than simply returning to baseline. It could mean finding what your heart has been asking for.

For more quick daily practices to help manage the stress that can lead to burnout, my e-guide “10 Ways to Manage Stress and Anxiety Every Day,” is available for free when you sign up for my newsletter.  


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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Clinical psychologist

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based interventions. His books include The CBT Deck and A Mindful Year (co-written with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh); he hosts the weekly Think Act Be podcast, featuring conversations on living more fully.

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