Avoiding burnout when working from home


  • Mind
  • Sunday, 17 May 2020

A blur in the boundaries between home life and work life due to working from home during this time can result in burnout. — FAIHAN GHANI/The Star

No one is immune from the “work from home (#wfh)” paradigm due to the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic.

Hundreds of millions of people are stuck at home, including millions who are having to work from home.

Some may argue that working from home comes with perks like flexible hours, wearing comfortable clothes like pyjamas, and no need to commute or wait for crowded public transport.

While it may sound good, the reality is that there are many challenges that have surfaced because of this unprecedented crisis, such as loss of autonomy, forced social isolation, and the uncertainty of how long this state will persist and what the future may hold.

All these factors put a huge mental strain on many people who may never have had to experience such magnified mental duress over such a long period of time.

Burnout vs stress

Burnout refers to a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged involvement in emotionally-demanding situations, especially in the context of work.

According to the World Health Organization’s International Disease Classification (WHO ICD-11), burnout is now categorised as a syndrome that results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

It is made worse now that our home is also our workplace.

While burnout can be the result of excessive and prolonged stress, it is not the equivalent of too much stress.

Stress can cause increased anxiety, frustration or angry, or even motivation to overcome the problem causing it.

Burnout, however, is a distinct entity that is characterised by emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation (feelings of cynicism and detachment), and a low sense of personal achievement or accomplishment.

Burnout occurs gradually and insidiously, so it is important to recognise the early signs and symptoms that may signal a need to address things before they get worse.

Here are its symptoms:

  • Emotional: Loss of humour, irritability, resentment, loss of motivation, decreased sense of accomplishment, depressed mood, apathy, feelings of guilt, blame, hopelessness and negativity.
  • Cognitive: Poor concentration, suspicion, mistrust, stereotyping, dehumanising, distancing, rumination and cynicism.
  • Behavioural: Avoiding work and responsibility, isolation, inflexibility, inefficiency and procrastination, acting out (through alcohol, drugs, gambling, affairs etc).
  • Physical: Tiredness, lethargy, sleep disorders, changes in appetite, frequent headaches and muscle pains, and increased minor illnesses.

Coping with burnout

Working from home in the midst of this pandemic has intensified a host of risk factors that contribute to burnout.

These include a blurring of boundaries between personal and work life, a lack of control over the current situation, and a forced reduction in social interaction.

Finding ways to manage these risk factors, paying attention to the signs and symptoms, and actively reducing stress, can prevent you from burning out. These include:

Maintaining boundaries

Many are now facing challenges of integrating child or elder care responsibilities at home with an ever-increasing workload.

Setting physical, social and temporal boundaries is critical for our well-being and increased work engagement.

This may mean planning a schedule for work duties and personal life, creating a dedicated work space at home, and having a simple transition ritual to signal to yourself and your household members that you are in “work” mode, e.g. making a cup of coffee, a short meditation, showering and changing out of pyjamas, or applying some make-up or hair product.

Prioritising work

Focus on critical work, rather than busy work.

Many employees may feel the need to appear productive and perform numerous small tasks, rather than those that are actually important.

Apart from work tasks, prioritise self-care, which means ensuring you get adequate sleep, proper nutrition and scheduled time for physical exercise, hobbies or other fun activities.

Reaching out

It is even more important now to actively reach out and connect with people.

When you are burnt out, problems may seem unrelenting and insurmountable, and these feelings are greatly heightened by isolation and loneliness.

While face-to-face meetings should currently be avoided, keep connected to friends and family through online video chats, games or virtual group exercises.

If needed, reach out to a mental health counsellor or therapist online.

Simply talking to someone about your problems can help put things in perspective, calm your nerves and relieve stress.

Reframing perspective

While burnout can affect anybody, recognise that certain personality types may be more prone to it than others.

High-achieving, type A personalities with perfectionist tendencies, a need to be in control and a reluctance to delegate tasks to others, can be at increased risk of burnout.

Reframing your perspective on work can be greatly beneficial to your mental well-being.

You can do this by finding what makes your job meaningful, focusing on the aspects that you enjoy or that you can express gratitude for, and focusing on things within your control, while also accepting things that are outside your sphere of control and involvement.

Burnout can be detrimental to anyone, no matter how astute we are in making decisions and doing our work.

We need to continuously gauge and ensure that we do not fall into an endless loop of despair because we are burnt out.

Dr Jonathan Ti is a general practitioner in Singapore. For more information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information provided is for educational purposes only and should not be considered as medical advice. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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