mental health

Work-from-home burnout? 4 ways to cope in lockdown

Steph Arnaldo

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Work-from-home burnout? 4 ways to cope in lockdown
When work meets home, things can get extra stressful – especially during a quarantine. Feeling the burnout? Here's how you can rise from the rut.

MANILA, Philippines – It took me a while to write this. 

An article about working from home, while working at home, and how to cope while questioning if I even was… all felt a bit ironic to be honest. Did I, the procrastinator, have the right to feel tired? Stressed? Drained from the comfort of my home? 

It took me a while to admit that yes, maybe I do – and for others who are also lucky enough to still be working during the enhanced community quarantine – yes, you do, too.

I’m on my laptop, typing. Not seen in picture: a growing things-to-do list, virtual meetings, an influx of bad news, bickering family members, meal planning, budget cutting, grocery shopping, maintaining relationships via text, maybe a cry or two, a headache, worrying about your health, your relatives, and fearing for the state of a pandemic-stricken world – all while trying to keep it together, one day at a time.

No wonder it feels like a lot, and no wonder tasks feel like they’re taking more from us than they normally would. As much as the word “home” sounds comfortable, working from it may be affecting our mental health more than we think. But more importantly, are there ways we can cope, and possibly avoid burnout? 

Psychologist Lissy Ann Puno and Nikki Vergara, co-founder of Positive Workplaces, talked to Rappler to help us dig through our work-from-home woes, the exhaustion we feel, and what we can do to keep calm and cope.

Home is where the office is? Adjusting to change

You’re a corporate employee used to a 9-5 day office job – but now you’re suddenly working from home, alone, and amid a pandemic. Maybe this new set-up was ideal for the first few days – goodbye sweaty commutes, traffic jams, annoying co-workers, and micromanaging bosses.

“However, there are new challenges that present itself,” Lissy Ann said.

“Suddenly, there are lots of distractions that get in the way of being productive that you did not anticipate. The chaotic environment of your home, children entering and leaving the room, noisy neighbors,” she added. 

Being around colleagues, your boss, clients, and even scurrying commuters during rush hour may be a daily experience you’re used to – or maybe even thrive in. Now, you’re left to your own devices, and this alone can be jarring for social beings who rely on teammates to help ease workload or office friends to destress during work.

“Your stress increases without the comfort of being with other people for support and guidance, especially if you have questions,” Lissy Ann said.

This gives you more time to second-guess yourself, ruminate, and worry – no more office chika or merienda breaks to distract you from thoughts and feelings that would normally be quelled by friends and a busy setting.

Less structure, longer hours

“There is really no schedule to complete a task at a certain time so we end up thinking, ‘It can wait’ or ‘I will do it later,'” Lissy Ann said, which explains lockdown procrastination – and working longer hours than expected.

There is no more structure to your day, and no more use for your planners – routine is gone, and so is consistency, which might make us mindlessly use up hours based on whims and pressure (“I’m feeling productive now, so I’ll work, even if it’s already midnight.”) This lack of structure can mess up our habits, which are crucial for stability. 

Suddenly, work mode and rest mode have grown into a hybrid you definitely weren’t prepared for. You wake up to a string of notifs, sitting up from bed in a rush and getting right into work, computer in lap. You fall asleep the same way, phone in hand, half-waiting for a response from a client. People have more time on their hands – and they treat you like you do, too. 

Home used to be a sanctuary – now it’s a zoo. We find ourselves missing our daily commutes to and from work; even our drives – we now realize – were therapeutic, providing a solitary respite and “breather” in between work and home. No more “be right backs” to collect yourself; now we’re always on overdrive, on high-alert, stuck in the same space. 

Most of us are on the same big boat, and just like the Titanic, we might feel like we’re sinking. Here’s how we can put on that lifevest and swim to safety, starting with…

1. Set a routine with good self-care habits.

Routine is your mental health’s best friend, and certainty is the enemy of your anxiety. Quell your tension with calming moments you can rely on everyday – a set time for eating, waking up, sleeping, nightly tea, a specific time for reading, catching up with friends, weekends devoted to a hobby, breaks in between work for yoga.

“How do you start the day? How do you signal the body that you are moving into one schedule? Follow a routine. Take a shower. Get dressed from the waist up. Practice good grooming,” Lissy Ann advised. Brush your teeth and spray on perfume before video calls if you must! 

Don’t jolt your body and mind even more with a brash pace and unexpected schedules. Let it rest on certainty. Don’t rush to your laptop ASAP – why not wake up a bit earlier before clocking in to meditate, eat mindfully, and leisurely drink your coffee? Turn off your phone at a certain time every night – don’t forget to take care of yourself.

“Oxygen masks on a plane serves as a good metaphor for this. Before you attend to helping others, put the oxygen mask on yourself first. If you want to keep functioning for others, you need to make sure that you are okay,” Nikki said. Don’t be afraid to slap on that sheet mask at night, or take a longer, warm shower, or indulge in a video game – you do you, whatever that might mean for you.

2. Compartmentalize. Boundaries are your besties.

When work meets home, compartmentalization – the dividing of the different areas of your life into neat boxes, safely away from each other – may cease to exist. “Boundaries between work and home have blurred. You might be tempted to abolish physical boundaries and time boundaries, but more than ever, setting both are important,” Nikki said.

“Certain locations prime you for certain roles in your life. I’m at home – I am a daughter and a sibling. I’m at work – I am a friend and a hard worker,” Nikki said, so it might be uncomfortable to be at home, working, while still being expected to be at your family’s beck and call 24/7.

“Say good morning and goodbye to the people in your home to signal that you are now creating the boundary of moving from home to office,” Lissy Ann suggested.

“Don’t stay stationary in the same place for everything. If space allows you to, look for areas in your house that you can assign for a particular activity – bed for sleep, dining table for meals, living room for hobbies.”

“Set a schedule for just work and communicate this with your coworkers, so you won’t feel pressured to keep replying once the work day is up. Associate a place for productivity and another for unwinding,” Nikki said – and yes, that means no working on your bed; try to keep it sacred.

3. Discipline yourself to be less… disciplined?

Respect rest as much as you respect work. Work until needed. Take mini-breaks during the day like you would at a normal day in the office. Close that laptop at night. Resist the temptation to check that email at 11 pm, or to get some work done during your free time. Drown in hobbies. Enjoy that trashy Netflix reality show. Tune out on the weekends. Or rather – have a weekend! (READ: How to make your weekends from home still feel like weekends)

Sure, technology provides an all-access pass to yourself 24/7, and yes, you can reply ASAP – but just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. 

Don’t be afraid to reach out to your supervisor too, when work starts to feel a bit too heavy. Also, don’t hesitate to seek psychological help online – a handful of organizations are offering mental health services for free. 

4. Take it easy on yourself. 

Stay hopeful, stay kind, and don’t be afraid to ask for help – no man is an island after all, and this pandemic further proves how much we actually need each other, even in isolation.

News overwhelming you? Limit your thumb-scrolling to once a day. Feeling like it’s a bit too much today? Have a cry. Let it out. Vent to a close friend. Hug a family member. Take a leave if you must.

“For some, work is a refuge from difficulties at home, or home is a safe place from work emotions,” Nikki said. Now that they’ve blended, “running away from either emotion” is no longer possible in this scenario, which eventually heightens the feelings of suffocation and panic.

Here’s a tip: “Be mindful of your emotions,” Nikki said. “Recognize you are the ‘observer’ of emotions. Gradually distance yourself from emotions through the words you use. Instead of saying ‘I am anxious’, learn to say ‘I feel anxious’, to ‘I notice a feeling of anxiety’ to ‘I am getting the thought that there is a feeling of anxiety,'” she added.

Guided meditation apps like Headspace or Calm may help beginners.

Nikki also suggests to harness your inner strengths (you can take a free assessment online such as the VIA Character Strength Survey), since doing so “results in happiness when we use them in the service of something greater than yourself.” It gives life “meaning,” per se, which increases joy and combats stress. 

For example, if your strength is gratitude, make a daily blessings list and share it with a friend. If it’s building relationships, initiate virtual game nights, or bring friends together via group chats. If it’s service, start a fundraiser online.

Find what energizes you, makes you proud, and makes you feel like yourself – and hold on to that. If it’s love, friendship, purpose in work, self-growth, faith, and hope, hold on to them, too – they’re strong enough to quench a burnout. – 

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Steph Arnaldo

If she’s not writing about food, she’s probably thinking about it. From advertising copywriter to freelance feature writer, Steph Arnaldo finally turned her part-time passion into a full-time career. She’s written about food, lifestyle, and wellness for Rappler since 2018.