Getting Workplace Overwhelm Under Control
Burnout while working remotely can be harmful to your health and happiness. Avoid languishing and the planning fallacy as you embrace self-care and take action to improve wellness and efficiency.
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One minute, you’re cruising down the road on a warm day. Your car is handling, braking, and accelerating like a dream as you sing along with the radio. The next minute, steam pours from under the hood and your ride shudders to a stop.
Welcome to stress.
According to one survey conducted between summer 2020 and 2021, employees reported a 21 percent increase in pandemic-related burnout, with similar rates of physical indicators of stress, like muscle tension and fatigue. Survey data from monster.com puts that burnout figure at 69 percent.
And remote employees don’t always handle stress well. A November 2021 study in Computers in Human Behavior reported that the strategies remote workers use to manage work challenges (such as extensive emailing or videoconferencing, or extending workdays to collaborate across time zones) are also the activities that create or worsen physical and psychological well-being.
Burnout is not merely unpleasant. When you’re stewing in stress for a while, your body actually changes, with chronic inflammation that can trigger heart disease and even premature death. Stress also breaks down the blood-brain barrier, allowing inflammatory proteins to enter the brain, which can impact your memory, resilience, and motivation. It’s no wonder, then, that under stress, sometimes you just want to binge watch old episodes of Stranger Things.
But you can reclaim your life and get your remote work life back on a smooth, productive track. Here are some ideas how.
Know How to Spot It
“Overwhelm”—despite its name—doesn’t always show up as a catastrophic event. In fact, it can be downright sneaky, and when you’re running on fumes, it can be easy to miss.
New York Times writer Adam Grant categorizes this space as languishing. You’re not depressed, but you’re not flourishing, either. Grant notes that the pandemic has resulted in a shift toward lower levels of mental health.
If you are languishing, you may feel like you’re functioning on three cylinders instead of four. Your ability to focus isn’t gone, but it is less reliable. Your motivation comes and goes. You have energy, but you just can’t get it going toward finishing the project that’s due Thursday. Because languishing isn’t as severe as depression, Grant notes, you may be more likely to ignore it.
Additional physical signs of stress include changes in eating or sleep patterns, headaches or chest pain, and stomach pain or upset. These signs tend to increase over time if stress levels do not decrease.
Still not sure about your overwhelm level? Take a research-based online test to evaluate your burnout level empirically. After all, you can’t tackle burnout if you don’t know you have it.
You Probably Have More Control Than You Think
You may genuinely feel overwhelmed because you have too much to do, but research shows that lack of control, especially over deficient resources and work direction, can also be a big contributing factor to burnout. Luckily, if you work from home, you may have more control than you realize—and not just in pants-are-optional phone meetings.
One effective way to foster workplace wellness is job crafting, and it’s perfect for work-from-home jobs, where some flexibility is baked in. Job crafting means gently nudging your job in a direction that better reflects your values and talents so that your work is more crafted to suit you. This may manifest as creating a career plan for yourself so you can see what you’re doing today as part of an exciting future (definitely not languishing). You can job craft by making a challenge out of your to-do list or exploring your industry by joining a professional association or getting a mentor. Think of how you might design your ideal work and see what you can implement yourself.
Job crafting can even translate to redefining what your work means to you (researchers call this “cognitive job crafting”). So if your whole team’s EdTech jobs focus on building a new platform for teachers to teach remotely, you can consider how your work impacts students. Sure, maybe your role is to check for bugs, but what you’re really doing is making sure the world’s future leaders and doctors have what they need to succeed.
Stop Planning Fallacy in Its Tracks
The meeting you expected to take 20 minutes takes 40. The white paper you wanted to draft in two hours takes three. There’s a fancy name for this: planning fallacy. According to psychologists, our brains are glass-half-full kind of optimists, always predicting best-case scenarios. We regularly forecast projects, time estimates, and even outcomes based on what might happen in ideal situations.
Spoiler alert: Life isn’t ideal. If you’re living the planning fallacy, you agree to five projects in a week, when you realistically have time for just four. When deciding whether to say yes to a new work opportunity and when projecting what you can feasibly do in a day (or a week), always add wiggle room. White space on your planner means room to breathe, which in turn means you’re less likely to find yourself overwhelmed.
Sleep on It
A recent survey indicates only 8 percent of Americans wake up feeling fully rested. Insufficient sleep leads to feelings of overwhelm and burnout. With 32.5 percent of adults reporting fewer than seven hours of sleep a night, it’s a serious problem, especially since good-quality REM and non-REM sleep actually help your body cope with stress.
For remote workers, learning how to “turn on” and “turn off” work is challenging. Create effective boundaries between your work and personal life. Make your bedroom the place you sleep, not work, and develop good sleep hygiene.
Ease Yourself into Momentum
You need to get going, because once you do, it’s easier to keep going. Mel Robbins has a simple way to get started: She counts down from five, and when she hits zero, she starts moving on the next step, whatever it is.
Some other ideas: Break down each task into very small steps. Trim your must-do list to three items so it’s doable. The point is to get started on a project, a task, a conversation, or even cleaning. Then build on that accomplishment by proceeding to the next.
Don’t Just Cope
Coping with burnout is different than addressing it, according to psychology professor Christina Maslach, which is why just adding yoga or other types of self-care to the end of your workday may not be enough. It’s just more stuff to do, and it may not tackle the real issue, which could be bad sleep, a feeling of no control over your work, or simply too much on your plate. To lower the overwhelm, you may need to significantly change your days and your work.
Job burnout can feel inevitable in our current remote work culture, but it doesn’t have to be. The whole trick is to recognize overwhelm and then tackle the root causes to boost your psychological safety and your mental and physical health.