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5 strategies for combating WFH-based burnout

As organizations continue to implement work-from-home strategies in response to the global pandemic, many employees are discovering that this option isn’t all they had expected.

The fantasy of an "easy" life -- exercising midday, getting some laundry done during that conference call and even juggling child care responsibilities -- has met with the reality of fractured attention, lack of onsite support resources and longer hours. The result is that, after two months, burnout is on the rise.

Internet jokes about forgetting what day it is abound. But what’s no laughing matter is that too many employees forget even what time it is as they unexpectedly find themselves lulled into working morning, noon and night when home becomes the office. As someone who’s officed out of my home for nearly 30 years (long before it was in vogue), I know how simultaneously seductive and depleting it can be.

For many, burnout is a result of losing the temporal barrier that had previously separated work from home life. When WFW (working from work), there are multiple actions that signal the brain to know that it’s time to transition. Shutting down the computer. Checking out with co-workers. Listening to the news while sitting in traffic during the commute home. In the absence of those signals and that transition, the workday simple continues.

Shutdown rituals can reduce burnout, enhance productivity and make working from home work.

Shutdown rituals

People who can successfully and sustainably work from home understand the necessity of balancing all of the other things they do from home with the work. For many, the key is to develop and religiously observe shutdown rituals that trigger the brain and body to shift gears. Consider these incredibly simple strategies as you craft rituals that work for you.

  1. Close the door. Many who are working from home are doing so from dens and dining-room tables. But, if you’re fortunate enough to have a separate space, when day is done, simply closing the door can be a powerful message that it’s time to move on. Not only that, the closed door is a literal barrier and a reminder of your intention when you’re tempted to dip back into work.
  2. Say "goodnight." Trade bidding co-workers adieu on your way to the parking lot for a quick text, IM or email. Share a short message of appreciation for their contributions to your day or reference something you know about how they’ll be spending their evening.
  3. Capture insights. Reflection has long been acknowledged as an excellent way to bring closure to one’s day; but it also serves as a transitional signal for those working at home. Ask yourself: What did you learn? How did you feel? What will you do differently? What are you grateful for? Journaling your thoughts can be a powerful and satisfying way to wrap up one’s day on a high note and ready yourself to move on.
  4. Make a plan. Another way to wrap up one day is to begin planning the next. Take a few minutes to review your schedule. Pull together necessary resources. Anticipate challenges and issues. List your to-dos. This clears the conscious mind, freeing up more energy for evening activities while allowing the subconscious to begin working on issues as necessary overnight.
  5. Phone a friend. Remember those calls you used to make on your commute home, checking in with friends or family members? You don’t need to be on the road to reach out. Not only can it act as a transition; it can also satisfy today’s heightened need for human connection.

Follow the leader

Everyone who’s working from home can benefit from establishing shutdown rituals that trigger the brain and transition the body into a different mode. But this may be even more important for leaders and executives within the organization. Leadership behaviors set the tone and establish expectations for everyone else.

An employee in a technology firm recently shared: “Given all that’s going on in the world -- and in my home -- I’m already hyper-vigilant and on edge. Now my boss is sending emails at all hours of the night and I’ve lost the excuse of not being in the office.”

Leaders are in a powerful position to model the behaviors that can make working from home work. When they make a point to shut their days down, they give permission to employees to do the same, enabling the balance and rejuvenation required to get up and do it all over tomorrow.

Despite increasing pressure over the past decade to offer greater flexibility regarding when and where work gets done, the reality of working from home is beginning to sink in, along with the burnout. Shutdown rituals -- practiced by leaders and employees like -- are one way to ensure that we realize the promise rather than the problems of the WFH lifestyle.

 

Julie Winkle Giulioni works with organizations worldwide to improve performance through leadership and learning.  Named one of Inc. Magazine's top 100 leadership speakers, Giulioni is the co-author of the Amazon and Washington Post bestseller "Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want," You can learn more about her speaking, training and blog at JulieWinkleGiulioni.com.

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