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How to Spot WFH Burnout, and How to Address It

by Dan Ketchum

In late 2020, 20% of employed adults surveyed by the Pew Research Center said they worked from home before the coronavirus outbreak, while a striking 74% were working from home at the time of the survey. More than half of those workers signaled that they’d like to continue working from home if given the choice, responding positively to the new work environment, lack of commute and, in some cases, a newfound motivation. But while the home environment may have benefits ranging from more family time to more personal comfort, turning what should be the refuge of home into a full-time workplace may have potentially serious — but preventable and treatable — adverse effects on mental health. 

What Causes WFH Burnout? 

In a 2020 writeup, Laurel Farrer of Forbes gets right to the heart of work-from-home (WFH) burnout: When employees switch to a teleworking environment, “It’s not underperformance that leadership should be worried about,” she writes, “overperformance is what is actually killing the output of work-from-home teams.” Likewise, research from MarTech Cube indicates that remote workers tend to work significantly more than those who work on-site, averaging about 2 extra hours per day. Ultimately, more work equals more burnout.

How to Recognize It

Overwork can be a key cause of WFH burnout, and that burnout often manifests via a wide spectrum of warning signs, such as the following: 

  • Consistently avoiding or procrastinating with work responsibilities 
  • Conversely, difficulty in disconnecting from work-related communication like emails, texts, group chats or calls
  • A decline in work performance metrics like punctuality or quality of output
  • Apathy or lack of enthusiasm, including lessening satisfaction from work achievements 

Prevention Is the Best Medicine

Just as everyone responds differently to the remote work process, each individual may experience WFH burnout symptoms in different ways, if they experience them at all. Despite natural differences in the experiences of those who work from home, experts suggest two words, repeated ad nauseam for good reason, to help nip WFH burnout in the bud: Set boundaries

In the teleworking environment, setting boundaries means setting and adhering to strict in-office and out-of-office hours. In the out-of-office time, silencing notifications or setting up automated out-of-office responses can be a big help. This may help reduce burnout not only by effectively limiting your hours, but by reducing the anxiety of availability; strict personal boundaries give your brain extra assurance that it’s safe to relax during your downtime. 

And don’t neglect the follow-through. Once those WFH boundaries are set, respect yourself by respecting your boundaries, and reminding others to respect those boundaries whenever necessary. 

How to Treat WFH Burnout

Because WFH burnout is different for everybody, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. More hopefully, however, there are many tried and true options for dealing with its effects. If you’re experiencing feelings of burnout, these methods may be worth investigating:

  • Take time off. Even just a few days of genuine time off — that means no work emails or messages of any sort — can go a long way in revitalizing work motivation.
  • Balance your work schedule with more “me time.” One benefit of the WFH environment is that you may be closer to your hobbies at home, or that you’re saving commute time to and from work. Leverage that proximity and that extra time to focus on hobbies and activities that aren’t related to work whatsoever; in short, practice self-care regularly.
  • Speaking to Today, Stanford researcher Jeremy Bailenson suggests turning off self-view modes during your video conferences, as audio-only meetings can help you feel less tethered to your computer. 
  • Harvard Business Review recommends taking meetings at diverse times with breaks in between and regularly switching up your work tasks to recharge energy and encourage creative thinking, the latter of which can help reduce feelings of fatigue.
  • Take advantage of mental health assistance programs offered by your company, or seek mental health support such as therapy — also offered remotely — on your own.

If you’re feeling the effects of overwork or burnout, always express those feelings to your team as early as you possibly can. Not only can the act of sharing those feelings serve as a bit of therapy by itself, but you’ll often find that your team is more than willing to help you redistribute the workload or even help shift your job description in a direction that better suits the remote work lifestyle.

Cannabinoids and Stress

As Harvard Health Publishing explains, stress is a chain reaction; your senses essentially present information to the amygdala (the portion of the brain associated with emotional processing), the amygdala interprets that information and sends distress signals to the hippocampus. As it turns out, CBD can play a role in how your brain processes stress, and for the better. 

Brain imaging studies reported by the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research reveal that cannabidiol (CBD) intake may alter blood flow in brain structures that are implicated during occasional times of stress, including the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, and cingulate cortex. Likewise, supplementing CBD with ingredients like GABA and L-theanine (found in green tea, for instance) encourages a synergy that promotes relaxation and a sense of calm. 

Vistage CEO Cherly Marks Young reminds us that a dose of empathy is also a tonic, whether you’re experiencing WFH burnout or looking at it from the outside in. “It is a lot easier to judge someone than to say, ‘Are you taking breaks? Are you taking care of yourself?’ It’s important to be willing not to label odd behavior as bad behavior, but just be willing to reach out humanely and say, ‘How are you doing?’” And just about anyone can say those four words to their employees, to their co-workers, or to themselves.

Dan Ketchum is an LA-based freelance lifestyle, fashion, health and food writer with more than a decade of experience. He’s been fortunate enough to collaborate and publish with companies such as FOCL, Vitagenne, Livestrong, Reign Together, Out East Rosé, SFGate, The Seattle Times and more.