Since the outbreak of COVID-19 and the numerous lockdowns that have followed, working from home for many people has become the norm. While getting to sleep in a little later and avoiding rush hour may have been a welcome respite, integrating into an almost complete remote lifestyle has not been an easy transition for everyone.
Workers in countries like India have also observed that some employers have been taking advantage of the longer hours at home by increasing the workload and overall hours. Overexertion at work, combined with more household responsibilities and an overall sense of doom and gloom, could be fuelling a new era of ‘work from home burnout.’
We spoke to Dr. Melanie Greenberg, a clinical psychologist and author of “The Stress-Proof Brain,” to understand how to navigate this increasingly common mental health challenge.
“In lockdown, you don’t have social contact and Zoom [and other conferencing apps] can’t replicate human contact,” commented Greenberg, emphasizing that it is this connection that helps regulate our stress and makes us feel less lonely. Positive experiences with other people like going out for lunch or socializing after work that tend to lift us up are also absent, she noted, and thus it is easier to feel burnout in the current circumstances.
“The brain loves novelty, new experiences make us happy,” Greenberg said, adding that at home, we are deprived of this. Living alone and feeling lonely can also be an added stressor in this case. “The intensity of Zoom meetings is [different] compared to meeting in person, it’s more tiring because you can’t look away,” she noted. Working remotely also means a more sedentary lifestyle which is devoid of regular movement that can sometimes help reduce stress.
Recognizing the symptoms of burnout
Back pain is common among people who may be working long hours since they are spending too much time in front of their screens. Low energy and constantly feeling fatigued can also be a sign that you aren’t getting enough rest, Greenberg noted.
Constantly worrying about work and all the rapid changes around you can interfere with your sleep cycles, Greenberg said. “Regularly feeling panicky, [discomfort] in your chest, throat, and stomach and feeling like you can’t calm down…are also things to watch out for.” Severe tiredness and difficulty waking up in the morning are also associated with a poor sleep cycle.
Lack of motivation
People who are feeling overextended might stop caring about work and may find minimal motivation to do a good job. “[You might] feel like you’ve lost the pleasure and challenge of work,” Greenberg told Re:Set. She adds that it is normal to feel this way especially since we no longer have vacations and other positive experiences to look forward to.
Increase in irritability
Feeling more pressure on the professional front could also manifest as being more angry and irritable. “[You could also be] dreading spending time with family or feeling overwhelmed around them,” Greenberg said, adding that not feeling connected is a common issue when a person is stressed.
Not seeing a future
If you feel like you have completely lost all hope and constantly find yourself unable to see any positive future for yourself, it could be a red flag, Greenberg pointed out. Frequently dissociating, being spacey, and numb are also warning signals to watch out for and in such scenarios, it is recommended to seek out the help of a mental health professional. “If a person constantly feels like ‘I don’t want to be here,’ it is a predictor of suicidality,” she observed.
“Over long periods, chronic stress can accumulate and affect many systems of the body,” she underlined. From a weakened immune system to an increase in issues like heart disease, constantly being overworked while also living a very sedentary lifestyle can be damaging to one’s health and well-being.
Taking action to break out of burnout behaviour
Analyze what can change in your workday
“Try to delegate or set limits [wherever possible],” Greenberg recommended. If exhaustion is the issue, you also need to remind yourself to get up and stretch every 45 minutes. Quick naps of 20 minutes when there are no meetings are also recommended.
Vary your experiences
“Unless it’s high risk, try to get out of the house for at least 30 minutes a day,” Greenberg said. If there are hiking trails or water bodies near you, you can spend some time there to break up your routine. Depending on the current COVID-19 regulations and lockdown rules in your town, you can also follow social distancing norms and still meet friends nearby or even just go on a short drive alone.
Cut back on virtual socializing
Interacting with others online can feel a lot like work, Greenberg observed, reiterating that it can be useful to scale back on your virtual socializing and social media use. Instead, you can spend that time doing other activities that stimulate you like reading or cooking.
Ensure you’re getting physical exercise
Biking, yoga, or simply walking; explore what are some safe options around you and ensure that you move around so you’re not spending all your time staring at the screen.