Burnout Amidst the COVID-19 ‘Work-From-Home Experiment’

The COVID-19 outbreak sparked what many are referring to as ‘the world’s biggest work-from home experiment’. While the hustle-and-bustle that characterised many of our cities and neighbourhoods has been replaced with eerily quiet, deserted public spaces, sporadically unsettled by small groups of ‘socially distanced’ people waiting outside cafes; millions of Australians have scrambled to adapt and carry out their usual work activities at home. For many of us, the concept of working from home has been the elusive dream of a life in which we can ignore our alarms, sleep in, wear pyjamas to work, and take as many snack breaks as we desire. However, like any experiment, there is a great deal of uncertainty as to how our transformed work practices will impact us both short and long-term. One of the potential consequences that should be considered involves the concept of burnout.

What Is Burnout, and Why Does It Matter Right Now?

Following decades of research, burnout has been defined as a negative response to chronic stress on the job, encompassing exhaustion, feelings of cynicism, detachment from work, a sense of ineffectiveness, and a lack of accomplishment. Burnout has been associated with job withdrawal, job dissatisfaction, and turnover, as well as physical symptoms including headaches, fatigue, muscle tension and sleep disturbances. In order to understand the ways in which burnout might be impacting individuals working-from-home, and to devise countermeasures to keep individuals engaged, satisfied and comfortable in their work environment; it is first necessary to outline the factors that contribute to burnout. Researchers have identified the following six key factors that contribute to burnout:

1.   Workload

A sustainable workload is one that is manageable while providing sufficient opportunities to practice and refine skills. When we lack the opportunity to rest and recover, our risk for burnout increases. In addition to the increased workload that has resulted from developing processes that enable working-from-home and ironing out their kinks, some individuals may find that eroding the barrier between their workplace and home limits their time for rest and recovery. This may particularly be the case for those with flexible schedules, who find themselves working at unpredictable and inconsistent hours.

 2.   Control

To prevent burnout, we need access to the resources necessary to do our jobs efficiently, the ability to exercise autonomy, and to influence decisions in our workplaces. Some individuals working from home might be significantly deprived of their sense of control as they have been forced to adapt to new systems, processes, and technology. Furthermore, given the rapid nature of our shift to working-from-home, it is likely that many individuals experience frustration as their organisations scramble to provide them with the resources they need.

 3.   Reward

Acknowledgement and rewards for hard work are important in preventing burnout, enhancing our engagement, and sense of being valued at work. Considering the substantial reductions in working hours and wages many Australians have experienced, it is possible that some individuals feel devalued and overwhelmed as their compensation has changed. Furthermore, individuals who have decreased interaction with colleagues and managers may be deprived of opportunities to receive needed feedback and recognition for their hard work.

 4.   Community

Positive, supportive, professional relationships are important to preventing burnout. For some individuals, working-from-home might elicit a feeling of detachment and isolation from colleagues, depriving them of the support and reinforcement typically present in their workplace.   

5.   Fairness

Fairness represents the degree to which we perceive decisions made by our colleagues or managers as fair and equitable. Some individuals may perceive the significant changes made to their roles, such as the compensation, environment, and processes; to be unfair, in-turn eliciting feelings such as frustration and anger.

6.   Values

As defined by Russ Harris in the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy based book “The Happiness Trap”, values are about the type of person we want to be, how we want to act, what we want to stand for, and what we want to do with our lives. An important factor in preventing burnout involves the extent to which our values align with our activities at work. Given that many individuals are faced with significant changes in the type of work they are doing, it is possible the qualities that drew them to their roles in the first place have changed.

 What Can I Do About It?

Fortunately, a broad range of strategies have been suggested to help buffer you from burnout, including:

Ø  Designate a set area in your home to do your work-related tasks, and if possible, set a schedule that aligns with your typical work hours. Avoid working in your bedroom, as this can contribute to sleeping difficulties, and refrain from accessing any work-related material outside of your scheduled hours.

Ø  Consider dressing as you normally would for work. While this may not suit everyone, finding a comfortable compromise between pyjamas and a suit might help you mentally switch between your restoration and productive working modes.

Ø  Discuss how you are managing your workload with your employers and raise any concerns regarding resources needed to do your role effectively. It is in your employers’ best interest for you to have the tools you need to be productive.

Ø  Remind yourself that it is normal to feel frustrated, anxious, or stressed due to financial instability, and that this is not a reflection on your competence but on the global economy. Reflect on your ability to cope with financial instability in the past, and the skills, strengths, and resources you have today that will help you manage.

Ø  Engage with your colleagues via videoconferencing and phone calls whenever possible. While it may be tempting to skip professional and social interactions with colleagues to run errands or do other activities, doing so might deprive you of needed support and connection.

Ø  If you have concerns regarding the fairness of changes made in your workplace, consider discussing them with a supervisor or manager you feel comfortable with. It is possible they are unaware of your concerns, and could work with you to find a solution.

Ø  Take some time to reflect on your values. Consider using the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy based Values Worksheet to help you identify the values that first drew you to your role, and the extent to which you feel connected/disconnected with those values today. Consider having a discussion with your employer about ways to reconnect with those values, or find activities to do outside of your work hours that help you connect with those values. 

Ø  If you continue to experience persistent stress and anxiety, know that you’re not alone and there is support available for you. At the Clinical Psychology Centre, we are experienced in a range of evidence-based strategies to help you navigate challenging periods, to build your confidence in coping with stress and anxiety, and to help you work towards living a life that aligns with the values most important to you. 

For further information and support, contact the Clinical Psychology Centre on (02) 9906 5199 or visit us at www.wiseinstitute.com.au