Avoiding work from home burnout

Covid-19 has had an unprecedented impact on our lives. Socialising has become virtual, we can be fined or arrested for meeting our friends in person. Our commute has changed from a slog through traffic or public transport to a short walk to a home office or dining room. We are no longer worrying about finding a meeting room, but instead making sure that everyone has the right dial in details. For those of us lucky enough to be able to work remotely, our homes have become our permanent workspaces.

Photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash

I have worked from home, on and off, for the past 10 years. This was to try and improve my work/life balance, as I had a long commute to get to the office. It was great, I could catch up on sleep and finish work at a reasonable time to spend the evening with my family. I also managed to remove the distractions and interruptions that are inevitable in an office, and really get some focus time on the projects I was working on.

As time went on and I worked from home more and more, I discovered that something was missing. The very things that I had thought would make working from home better were also things that I missed. My commute was non-existent, but I was working longer hours, and no longer had a buffer between my work and home life. There were no more frustrating interruptions from co-workers, but that also meant there were few moments that would break up my day. I was coming away from my desk at the end of the day more exhausted than when I had been in the office.

Eventually I started to feel burnt out from working at home, and realised that some of the habits that had evolved in my office were key to maintaining a sustainable pace. It turned out, that working from home required a different set of behaviours to being in the office, and that I needed to discover some of these if it was going to be sustainable.

How can we make working from home more manageable and avoid burnout?

My experiences aren’t unique, evidence from NordVPN (via Bloomberg) suggests that since the lockdown, we have started to work longer hours. Given that a lot of people are now working from home for the first time, I thought I would share a few of the behaviours that have helped me maintain productivity over long periods of working from home.

This is probably the most important habit to form, I learnt it from a housemate who ran his own business. Although his office was only at the bottom of the stairs, years of experience had told him that he needed to stick to a routine in order to stay productive. He started work at 8am and finished at 5pm precisely. He took an hour for lunch, and very rarely worked at the weekends.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

I reflected on this when I started working from home. Some days I started at 8am and went through to 7pm without a break. Other days I was so exhausted that I couldn’t get out of bed until 10, and then felt incredibly unproductive for the entire day. I also remembered the advice of someone who worked shift work, he told me that the most important thing he had found was to stick to his meal routine. Even if he had worked a night shift, he still made sure to have his three meals a day at normal times. He claimed that this made the transitions from night to day shift far easier.

I took this advice to heart, and it has helped me immensely. I now have a regular work pattern again, starting at 9am and finishing at 6pm precisely. I have also tried to use things like stand-ups and catchups to bookend my day and provide clear opening and closing times. It helps me stay focussed, and means that I am not letting work creep into my personal life as much.

I am very fortunate to have a room that I can dedicate to work. Prior to this I had a flat, and the only real option for a workspace was to sit at a table in the open plan sitting room / dining room. This lead to me being distracted far too easily. If I was working from the sofa, then it was far too tempting to turn the TV on as background noise.

I think that our working environments are very important to our mental state. An office sets the expectation that you are there to work in the same way that a pub or restaurant is designed to create a comforting or relaxing atmosphere. My problem was that I associated my sitting room with relaxation. My mind had an expectation set by the surroundings that I was working in. I didn’t want to lose this association, as it might have meant that I associated my relaxation space with work and then wouldn’t be able to switch off.

To get around this I created a make shift desk in an alcove by the window. My back was to the television and I had plenty of natural light. If I was sat in the window alcove, then mentally I was at work. There was no other reason to sit in that position, and so it gave me the separation that I needed in order to encourage my mind to focus on work.

I had always resented my long commute. Whether I was driving or on the train it felt like wasted time. What I hadn’t realised was how much it protected my personal life from being overrun by work. The time I spent travelling, it turns out, was a time that I was passively using to transition between work and home. In the mornings, it was time that I used to wake up, have a coffee and think about the day ahead. In the evenings, it was a time to reflect or take quiet time reading or watching a movie before interacting with my family.

Likewise there was something about the ritual of unpacking my work bag in the morning and greeting colleagues, as well as packing up at the end of the day. Just like the commute, it created structure to the day, and I realised that these things were key rituals that helped me transition from one state to another.

Photo by Nikolay Tarashchenko on Unsplash

To try and replicate some of this structure I have built these things into my routine. I try not to go straight from bed to the office in the morning, I make coffee and maybe watch or read the news. Sometimes I’ll listen to music for 10 minutes while I have my breakfast. At the end of the day I close my laptop down and pack away my notebook and stationary into a bag. I tidy my desk (my old office had a clean desk policy) and empty the trash bin. I like to think of it as putting my office space to bed, and it helps me disconnect from work.

Thinking about behaviours like this is especially important if you are in a small space. As I mentioned previously, I think the mind takes a cue from our surroundings, and at least for me there is nothing worse that trying to relax and having a constant reminder of work in the corner of my eye. Packing things away removes the work objects from your relaxation space, and in my opinion at least, turns your home back into a home.

If you have a particularly complex or involved setup and cannot pack down every day, think about alternatives to remove these objects from your immediate surroundings.

I used to have a big box that I would place over my monitor and printer. I decorated the outside with pictures of family and friends, so that instead of seeing a reminder of work I saw reminders of fond memories.

Home working is often more intense than our normal workspaces. Because we have to be more coordinated in contacting people, our diaries are often back-to-back with meetings. Instead of standing and moving from your desk to a meeting room, you close one Zoom call to open another. Even getting a coffee is often a short walk to the kettle, without the social opportunities that normally present themselves on the way to or from the office canteen or coffee machine.

Our workplaces have realised this, and tried to find ways to re-inject some of the social elements of the office. Our office stand-ups are now remote, some offices have set up virtual break rooms or drop in lunch sessions. We even had remote after work beers over a video link a few days ago. Town halls and executive communication has increased to try and reassure colleagues and staff members.

The problem comes that all of these things are also remote calls. Whereas before they were breaks from work, now they are another item in the diary that keeps us at our desks and in front of our screens. Being in front of a screen for 8 or 9 hours a day is exhausting, and the lack of face to face contact makes it even harder to sustain!

So my advice to you is do whatever you can to take regular breaks. That might mean that you start to schedule your calls to last for 55 minutes rather than a full hour. Giving you a few minutes to stop, stretch and regroup before the next call. Try to allow your eyes time to relax by looking out of the window, maybe even take up bird watching! For me I try and take a few minutes to play with my cats, or drink a cup of tea in the garden.

Miles has been trying to help, and even sent his first Slack message last week!

It’s also important to stay hydrated. A few years ago I found my eyes were struggling to focus in the mornings, and the optician told me it was likely due to dehydration changing the shape of my eyes! Since then I drink at least a pint of water in the morning before I start work, and have a glass of water on my desk throughout the day.

The final thing I wanted to mention is the importance of setting expectations with the people who live with us. Work can be stressful at the best of times, and with the added difficulties of remote working, social distancing and school closures we are likely to have less patience for the little things. I have found myself snapping at my partner because she has walked in during a call, or interrupted an important period of concentration.

The problem is that the people around us aren’t psychic! They don’t have visibility of our diaries or understand our work routines. We have to talk about the way in which we work, and set expectations that are clear. I have personally set the rule that if the door is closed then I can’t be interrupted, but if you live in a shared space and are working in the same area perhaps another signal is needed. I know one person who has a do not disturb sign on the back of her chair. I’ve heard of others setting up a shared calendar so that they can plan childcare and access to home office space.

Discuss the options with the people you live with, and iterate. Maybe even have a home retrospective to talk about what is working and what isn’t! Regardless of your current situation, I really hope that some of these things help you to iterate and make your home working time a bit more manageable and enjoyable.

Stay safe everyone!

Passionate product management advocate, trying to find and share ways to make companies and practitioners more effective.

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