Many of us wake up to countless emails, rush to meetings, chase unrealistic deadlines, and take calls after hours. We’re always on, and when there is a moment to pause, it can feel impossible to unplug.
It’s time to cut through the noise, Dr. Christina Maslach, a pioneering burnout researcher, says, or else we’ll burnout and our physical and mental health will suffer.
As we’re stuck at home, there’s an opportunity to streamline our days, work smarter, not longer, and find new ways of connecting. Let Inverse be your guide.
Staying afloat while WFH — Running on empty, feeling cynical, and seeing performance declines on a persistent basis aren’t signs that people are lazy or that they aren’t capable at work. These are the telltale signs of one common psychological phenomenon with a potentially deadly cost: burnout.
And as many people’s work life moves into the home or they work double time in health or human services, the risk of burnout balloons. People are facing longer hours on the clock, distance from coworkers and clients, and skyrocketing anxiety.
“You don't burn out all by yourself,” Christina Maslach, one of the early researchers on burnout and a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Inverse.
Burnout doesn’t mean people have personally failed. Blake Ashforth, an organizational psychologist at Arizona State University, agrees.
“It is that they have a job that simply bleeds them dry over time,” Ashforth tells Inverse.
“You've got to reinvent yourself as a worker at home.”
And it doesn’t happen overnight. Burnout is a “slow demolition of energy” that takes place over time. At first people may think, “Oh, I need more sleep or I need my vacation or my boss drives me crazy.”
“It's hard to realize you're actually in trouble until you're actually well into it,” Ashforth says. But when it's burnout, it’s a long-term slide.
“Burnout is a reaction to a system that is grinding you down. And until the system is fixed, burnout will always be with us,” he says.
How to build a smart routine — Many companies around the world are (fairly) in crisis mode. Employees are expected to pick up extra slack and be accessible 24/7. This “always-on” mentality, combined with escalating personal and financial worries, creates the perfect storm for people to burn out.
“That kind of model of doing ‘more with less’ has not been a good one,” Maslach explains. “It has not been focused on getting the best return out of people in the sense of creating an environment where they can thrive and enjoy the job and be committed and dedicated and innovative.”
Keeping up a breathless pace isn’t sustainable. Creating space to recharge is more vital now than ever as professional and personal life melt together.
“You've got to reinvent yourself as a worker at home,” Ashforth says.
To the extent you can, create routines at home that psychologically and socially trigger you and your family members that it’s time for you to work. That could mean getting showered and dressed for work, reading the news, or scheduling meetings throughout the day, Ashforth suggests. All these checkpoints help build momentum and focus.
Then, when you can, unplug. Avoid answering emails after hours and carve out time to be fully present. Maybe switch your phone off for a few hours (more on how to put your phone down below). In many cases, most pressing emergencies aren’t emergencies at all.
Stay connected at a distance — Self-isolating at home can strain social networks, a critical source of comfort in the fight against burnout.
No one is an island, Maslach says. “One of the most important resources for every individual is other people.”
Ashforth agrees: “A key way of ameliorating burnout is to feel that there are people who know you, care about you, and are willing to listen to you work through the troubles you're having with your job.”
“It's hard to put energy back in that battery. It can be done, but boy, it's tough.”
Reach out to people, check in with coworkers, schedule a weekly Zoom call with friends, or have a socially distant meetup in the park. Stay connected, both researchers advise.
“It's not just a nice thing to do to feel good to get through your day; it's actually vital to psychological health.”
System reboot — The best way to beat burnout is to change the system, a task that can seem impossible in times like these.
It's usually the chronic stressors that lead to burnout, the “pebbles in your shoe,” Maslach explains. In this pivotal moment, companies have the opportunity to make long-awaited changes to remove those “pebbles,” which often don’t cost a lot.
Giving people respite, opportunities to debrief, and lending an “empathetic ear” can go a long way in making employees feel valued and heard, even if you can’t directly change the conditions of the work, Ashforth says.
The key is to welcome input from employees and make system-wide changes based on that feedback. Making those changes earlier, rather than later, will keep employees from reaching the brink.
“Prevention is much easier than the cure,” Ashforth says. “Because once you're burned out, I mean, you're like a battery with no energy in it, right? It's hard to put energy back in that battery. It can be done, but boy, it's tough.”
If you’re living on the edge of burnout, you have to step away, Ashforth says. Maybe that’s taking a day off to spend time with family or signing off early to watch a movie with your partner.
Pressing pause in the short term will help you endure whatever the future holds over the long term.
Can’t put down your phone? Try these four tips:
- Leave it out of reach. The average person reaches for their phone over 47 times a day. To the extent you can, leave your phone in another room during meals or periods of relaxation, or at home if you’re exercising outside. Out of sight out of mind will help you drop the mindless reaches and keep distractions at bay.
- Set boundaries. Tell your coworkers or manager if you’re going to be out of touch for a bit, with the caveat of being available in the case of emergencies. Keeping everyone in the loop will ensure that no one pings you while you’re trying to unwind but shows that you’re conscious of the bigger picture.
- Use an alarm clock, not your phone. Using your phone as an alarm often triggers you to filter through messages or social media as soon as your eyes blink open. It also means you look at your phone as you lay down to sleep. Using an old-fashioned alarm clock can enable you to leave the phone charging outside the bedroom, promoting better sleep for everyone involved.
- Delete certain apps. Removing your email app or Instagram from your phone will make you be more intentional about checking messages and prevent disruptive notifications throughout the day. It may seem inconvenient, but it actually means you can be more productive and strategic when you are responding, rather than mindlessly scrolling as you watch TV, stand in line at the grocery store, or play with your kids.