Photo by Illustration: Oscar Bolton Green for Bloomberg Businessweek
With jobs and caregiving now often happening on the same couch at the same time, many workers are stuck in an unending grind. Here are some strategies for identifying and staving off burnout:
Spot the Signs
Burnout is a trifecta of indicators that arise from chronic work stress and that risk disconnecting you from your job, your friends, and your interests. The symptoms usually arrive in this order:
Exhaustion—Energy depletion that leaves you struggling to engage even in basic tasks.
Detachment—Mental distancing from your job, and cynicism about its importance.
Inefficacy—Loss of productivity and satisfaction.
Know Your Susceptibility
Generally, burnout afflicts Type A people, whose identities are intertwined with their jobs. “They like to have things under control, and they are intrinsically motivated and involved and take pride in what they do,” says Torsten Voight, a sociologist at Germany’s RWTH Aachen University who studies the subject.
Burnout is an affliction of affluence, in that it happens mostly to middle- and upper-class workers with the freedom to hit pause. “People in the midst of crises typically do whatever needs to be done,” Voight says, “and later, from a more comfortable place, [they] start to reflect and say, ‘This is insane, and I can’t do it anymore.’ ” The goal is to stave off the insanity.
Know the Cause
Burnout results from work that involves heavy demands and little control. Logging long hours while confined in your home for an indefinite period of time certainly qualifies. Research shows that a lack of positive feedback also contributes: With everyone out of the office, those casual kudos you took for granted have disappeared.
Attempting to replicate the quality and quantity of work you do in an office also renders you susceptible. “If you think that you can achieve the same in a home working environment, you will be stressed every day until you accept that you cannot,” says Rajvinder Samra, a burnout specialist and lecturer at Open University outside London.
Formulate an Anti-Burnout Plan
Restructure. It’s hard, but try to step back from having work provide the primary architecture for your life. If possible, rejigger your schedule to revolve more around you and the activities you enjoy.
Recover. Set aside time for your mind and body to escape the stress of work. Consider, for example:
- Brain breaks. Pepper 5- to 20-minute sessions dedicated to activities that aren’t work, household chores, or caregiving throughout the day. These might be for exercise, meditation, reading, or cooking (as long as that doesn’t feel like a chore).
- Recovery blocks. Spend 30 minutes or more on calming activities; these are longer versions of your brain breaks. Make sure to do one at the end of the day, after you’ve logged off. “Recovery at night helps your performance the next day,” Samra says.
Regain control. List the stressors you don’t have power over and adjust or talk to your boss. For example, if you’re stressed by your children interrupting meetings with your manager, try making peace with this new normal or feeling out if your boss minds.
Make Your Mark
Samra says you need healthy markers—activities that psychologically cue you to shift into home mode. Examples include Zooming with friends, exercise, reading, etc. Don’t gab about work or binge-watch a TV show set in your industry. Also, don’t rely on booze to make that transition.
Repeat Your Mantras
Voight and Samra say that burnout loves perfectionists. If that describes you, try repeating lines like these to yourself when things get stressful:
This is the moment to get it done. This is not the moment to be perfect.
This is a challenging situation that’s rooted in factors I can’t control.
Dig Yourself Out
Identify the work you hate. Samra says to delegate, share, get support, reschedule.
Identify the work you love. What is most meaningful, enjoyable, and rewarding to you? Do more of that.
Job-craft. In the long term, find work that maximizes the aspects you love. For instance, tell your bosses and co-workers that you want to be the go-to mentor for new employees.