Even Remote and Hybrid Work Can Burn You Out. Here's How to Avoid It.

Our new era of work has led many to working harder and more often, carrying over bad habits from the height of the pandemic.

7 Min Read
frustrated woman on laptop

We've entered a new era of work: one where rules have been bent and lines blurred. Many workers feel simultaneously less connected and more stressed by digital communication tools. The result is burnout, or feeling exhausted or cynical about your job.

Burnout doesn't care if you work exclusively from the comfort of your home. It can happen if you have a light workload, if you like your colleagues, even if you're passionate about what you do.

Around 29% of workers say their job is stressful and 19% say it's overwhelming all or most of the time, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center. Record stress levels recorded during the pandemic are yet to decline, according to a Gallup poll.

"What's happening is there's insurmountable workload and disconnection," said Dan Pelton, a clinical psychologist who works in management consulting. "It's creating a new sense of burnout."

While some experts say that employers are largely responsible for making structural changes that reduce stress for employees, the burden often falls on the individual.

Here are eight things you can do to help yourself this Mental Health Awareness Month. And if you feel like you can't do it alone, find a qualified therapist who can help you virtually or in-person.

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1. Make a list of what you love and hate

Start with perspective. Make a list of what matters most in your life and see if it matches what you are actually prioritizing.

"What we usually find is family, freedom or relaxation is the top value, and work three or four," Pelton said. So you should ask yourself: "Are you living according to your values?"

Throughout the day, pay attention to what stresses you out, said Bridget Berkland, employee well-being manager and certified health and wellness coach at the Mayo Clinic. Is it back-to-back meetings? After-hour communications? That can help you understand how to remedy the situation, Pelton said.

"Acknowledge it but don't stay engaged with it," said Lorenzo Norris, chief wellness officer for George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, suggesting that you don't dwell on negative feelings. "That will just bring you down."

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2. Move your body, rest your body

You can improve your brain health, functions and mood by taking care of your body, Norris said. Find 10 minutes to power nap (yes, even in the office), make sure you're eating well and staying hydrated, and consider a walking desk or morning workout. If you're too busy for fitness, turn your meetings into Aaron Sorkin-style walk-and-talks. While it may not solve the core issues causing burnout, it can help you think clearer and feel better.

"Just 30 minutes of exercise can improve your mood for four to six hours," he said.

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3. Cut down on boredom at work

It seems counterintuitive, but sometimes doing more can help with burnout. Just make sure it's the right kind of work — and work you're good at. This might mean unofficially crafting your job differently to boost enjoyment and fulfillment, said Michael Leiter, who co-authored the book "The Burnout Challenge: Managing People's Relationships with Their Jobs."

Do an audit of the things that give you the most satisfaction, and the things that make you feel most exhausted or cynical. Then start dialing up the tasks you can sink your teeth into.

"You have to get beyond being responsive to immediately what comes at you," he said.

Try to make meaningful tasks close to 20 percent of your day to create an intrinsic reward system, Norris suggests. That might mean having a conversation with your boss to make adjustments and figuring out how the team can better share the workload, Pelton said.

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4. Stop working every 25 minutes

Remembering to stop and take a break can be hard, but it's critical to reduce burnout.

Set a timer to remind yourself to get away, Leiter said. It might even help to work in focused 25-minute intervals with five-minute breaks in between — a method called the Pomodoro Technique, said Pelton. Another method is looking 20 feet away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes, which can help mitigate eyestrain and exhaustion. Apps like StandUp can help you build in regular breaks.

Integrate energizing activities into these pauses. Think about the things you enjoy like music, meditation, socializing, dancing or just getting some fresh air, Berkland said. A mindfulness activity Pelton suggests is stepping outside for 10 minutes and paying attention to your senses — what you see, hear, etc. This forces your brain to stay in the present versus being depressed about the past or anxious about the future, he said. If you need help, try the Calm app.

Make your own break room. Claim a quiet space in your home or office and fill it with plants and activities like coloring books for midday escapes.

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5. Bring back the chitchat

Turn your colleagues into work friends with the power of chatting, light gossip and happy hours. They can be an important source of support when it comes to your mental health.

Consider "what social support you need for your well-being," Berkland said.

Not sure where to start? Set goals like having in-person or virtual coffees each week with a certain number of colleagues. Fit small talk into the beginning of meetings. Ask about people's weekends, families or what shows they're bingeing. You might even consider get-to-know-you games, said Pelton. For example, have everyone take a picture outside the window closest to them, whether that's a remote location or at the office, and at the next team meeting, colleagues could spend the first 15 minutes guessing which picture belongs to which person. Then there's the ultimate friend maker: bringing pastries or other food to share.

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6. Embrace 'Do Not Disturb'

Default notification settings can lead to you getting pinged by work around-the-clock. To filter out the noise, turn on focus or work mode settings on iPhones and Android devices, and set time limits for each work app. You can close your email and toggle your Slack or Teams notifications when you need to focus. Or block off times on your calendar when you want to be heads down.

The pandemic blurred the lines between work and home life, and many of us have yet to reestablish that boundary. But boundaries will help control your stress. Include your working hours in away messages and email signatures.

"Structure when you're working and not working," Leiter said. "Be firm on that."

In addition to adjusting your notifications, have a discussion with your boss or team to establish norms so that workers can take breaks or log off guilt-free, Berkland said.

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7. Take your vacation (and sick) leave

Take your time off, that's what it's there for. Go through your calendar and pick some days now, even if they're far in advance. It can be a two-week excursion, a three-day weekend or a mental health day. Take your sick days too. Just because you can type from bed, doesn't mean you should.

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8. Remember, you're doing great

Don't be hard on yourself. No one is 100 percent happy with their job all the time. Putting unnecessary pressure on yourself can aggravate the issue and make it harder to pull out of a spiral.

"Don't expect to do the impossible," Norris said. "Sometimes the best you can do is get up and show up, and that's okay."

— Danielle Abril, The Washington Post

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