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From burnout to balance: how to deal with the pressure to be always-on

The Coronavirus pandemic has pushed entire workforces to work from home, even in companies where remote working isn’t the norm. In practice, this often means more Zoom or Skype conference calls and less boundaries between home and work life. As April marks Stress Awareness Month, it’s important to remind ourselves to take the necessary steps away from burnout and towards balance.

Medical professionals and essential workers at the frontlines are especially at risk of burning out, but those that have the ability to work from home can also be vulnerable. Being on lockdown means that we are more digitally dependent than ever before. This digital technology helps us feel togetherness when working remotely, but as the days blend together, excessive use of technology can exacerbate feelings of burnout.

Classified as an occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organisation (WHO), burnout is said to result from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The WHO says burnout can be characterised by three dimensions:

1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion

2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job

3. Reduced professional efficacy

So what can we do to work towards a balanced approach to working from home — as much as is possible during a crisis?

Set physical, social and mental boundaries 

Before the crisis hit, Laura M. Giurge and Vanessa K. Bohns carried out research exploring work and life boundaries. In five studies of more than 2,000 working adults, they found that senders of after-hours work emails underestimate how compelled receivers feel to respond right away, even when such emails are not urgent. These pressures tend to be amplified now as a result of Covid-19. 

Boundaries are often the first thing that’s thrown out of the window when working from home. Even for people who are typically good at setting clear work and home boundaries, the current unprecedented situation presents new challenges. For example, having children or family at home at the same time.

To ensure boundaries are being maintained, physical, social as well as mental lines need to be drawn. For example, physical boundaries could be the creation of a workspace where you switch on your ‘work mode’, whether that work zone is a simple space in a corner of the room or a desk in the attic. 

Social and mental boundaries relate to ways of working. For example, those with kids at home may no longer stick to the usual 9-5 routine and will have to be flexible. To get work done, block out sacred ‘offline time’ in your calendar or put an out of office reply on to clearly communicate when you are working, as well as highlighting times when you can’t get back to emails or company chats straight away. 

Focus on your most important work

Productivity is the next challenge. A two-year long Stanford study has shown that people who work from home can be more productive than office workers. But it also raised awareness of the downsides of remote work. More than half of the volunteer group changed their minds about working from home 100 percent of the time, as they felt too much isolation.

Now that we are all expected to self-isolate, productivity can seriously be stunted without our usual daily motivators. A good way to avoid procrastination and inefficiency at home is to create a list of top three priorities for each day. Consider everything else a distraction until each of the three tasks on that list are finished, starting with the hardest one first. 

When it comes to the rest of your working day, clear communication to your team about what work you’ll complete when is key. Communicate when you prefer not to be distracted for work that requires deep concentration. You can of course have set slots for when you check in on Slack or other company chats, but to always have everything on in the background for work-FOMO is a productivity killer. 

Research also shows that exercise throughout the day helps with battling burnout. Remember to take time away from your laptop. Just like you would head to the kitchen or canteen in a normal office environment, plan time for a brisk walk or workout to break up your day. 

If you’re ready to battle stress with a new mindset for now and beyond this crisis, allow our founder and an organisational psychologist Gemma Leigh Roberts to guide you on how to deal with stress

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