Schedule flexibility, increased job satisfaction, better work-life balance. Remote work seems like the ultimate cure to everything ailing us in the modern workplace.
But for all its benefits, remote work is still work. And even if those of us working remotely have escaped the office, a few built-in work frustrations followed us home.
Burnout is more than just stress. It recently became a true medical diagnosis, recognized by three factors:
- Physical/emotional exhaustion
- Sense of ineffectiveness or a lack of motivation
Unfortunately, burnout doesn’t care where you live or work. It’s a major concern worldwide. And high stress professions, like medicine, teaching and social work, are prone to higher burnout rates.
Though it would seem the flexible nature of remote work would make virtual commuters immune, that’s not the case.
Data from other 2020 reports may be muddied due to the COVID-19 crisis. For example, Microsoft’s recent study primarily examined workers who went remote as a crisis response—not by choice. Which isn’t true remote work. Instead, as Kelli María Korducki states, it’s being “at home, during a crisis, trying to work.”
However, remote worker burnout was a concern even before the pandemic. A 2019 report from Digital Ocean indicated 66% of remote tech workers felt burned out.
Then what can remote workers do to avoid burnout? Here are our recommendations:
- Whatever your routine, stay consistent
- Work smarter, not longer
- Mind your physical health
- Get out of your (home) office
- Know your limits
Let’s dive into each one.
For better or worse, humans are creatures of habit. These habits let us throw our brains into autopilot mode to conserve energy. Think about brushing your teeth. Chances are you don’t make much effort to do this, you just do it.
From a biological standpoint, it’s a pretty sweet deal. And we can take advantage of it by hacking our routines.
Now, this may be the point you think we’ll recommend getting up at 4:00AM every day like Tim Cook.
The point of a routine is not to do what works for someone else. It’s about creating a routine that works for you.
First, consider your “must-do” schedule demands. These are the things that are absolutely non-negotiable about your daily or weekly schedule. Does your work require availability at certain times or do you have total control over your working hours? Do you have regular personal obligations? Write all of these down.
Next, factoring in your “must-do’s,” look at your natural sleep preferences. Are you a night owl, an early bird or somewhere in-between?
Now, try to shuffle your schedule so your working hours cater to your “must-dos” and your circadian rhythms.
Don’t be afraid to be a bit creative here. If you’re a night owl who needs to take your kids to school, see if a mid-morning or early afternoon nap might be in the cards. If you’re a morning lark who never seems to be able to squeeze in a workout, move your gym hour to the morning.
Regardless of the schedule you choose, you’ll need to stay consistent on four times:
- When you go to bed
- When you wake up
- When you start your work
- When you end your work
Keep your schedule changes to a minimum, especially in the first few weeks of building your routine. Consistency here creates work-life boundaries, which will keep burnout at bay and help improve work-from-home productivity.
Remote workaholics beware: without the drudgery of a long commute home, it’s easy to say: “It’s late, but I’ll just work on one more thing.”
And as Parkinson’s law tells us: work will expand to fill the time allotted.
Together, they’re a recipe for remote work burnout.
So drop the mindset that more hours worked means more work done. It’s about the quality of the hours you put in, not the quantity.
Don’t believe us? Take a look at Zapier’s analysis of the four-day workweek. Implementing a four day workweek didn’t change employee performance or output, but it increased job satisfaction. And workers in many countries, including Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Germany, regularly work an average of less than 40 hours a week.
How can you get more done in less time? By leveraging what Cal Newport calls “deep work.”
The main tenet of deep work is that increasing your focus can produce the same results in less time. While a into deep work is another article entirely, you can boost your focus with a few quick tricks:
Use the Pomodoro technique: This technique consists of working for 25 minutes, then taking a break for 5 minutes. After completing four “Pomodoro” periods, take a 30 minute break then repeat the process. It’s great for beating procrastination on admin tasks. For creative tasks that may need longer focused periods, altering your timing to a 45 minutes on/15 minutes off or a 52/17 rhythm may help.
Get out in nature: Studies show that spending time in nature can help boost your focus. So, if you can, take a quick walk outside. Even without access to a yard or park, you can still reap the focus benefits by looking at pictures of nature.
Take breaks: Whether you’re using the Pomodoro technique or not, you should take breaks regularly during the day. According to research summarized in Daniel Pink’s When, we all experience energy troughs in the afternoon. So a mid-afternoon break is a natural way to work around your energy slump and refocus.
And for a final focus boost, keep your mind clear. As productivity guru David Allen once said: Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them. Use a task manager or to-do list to keep track of everything you need to get done. And brain dump regularly to make sure you have plenty of mental RAM to work with.
Mind Your Health
The majority of today’s remote workers are knowledge workers—meaning we’re hired for what we can do with our brains.
But this brainiac-type work often revolves around technology. Specifically, staring at computer screens for hours and sitting for long stretches. Ever heard “sitting is the new smoking?”
The good news is that we can look after our health without drastically overhauling our schedules. To combat the sitting-all-day habit, set a timer to go off every 45 minutes to an hour. When the timer goes off, stand up for 10 to 15 minutes or walk around for 5 to 10 minutes. If you have a fitness wearable like the Fitbit or iWatch, these trackers will automatically prompt you with these reminders on the hour.
On top of watching how much you’re sitting, mind how much you’re staring. Give your eyes a break using the 20-20-20 rule and/or blue light blocking glasses/lenses.
Finally, no discussion of health would be complete without talking diet and exercise.
Diet-wise, watch your caffeine and sugar intake. Too much of either leads to an up and down crash cycle in your energy levels. Eat whole, unprocessed foods as often as you can. And for anyone on the keto, Whole30 or any other carb-restricted diet, do note: your brain burns 400 calories a day and it strongly prefers working on glucose. So your thinking-heavy work is best done after a meal when you have plenty of glucose on-board.
When it comes to exercise, even 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week of moderate exercise (read: walking or light jogging, not that HIIT or spin class you always limp out of) improves your health. And for the HIIT-heads, Energizer-bunny runners and spin fanatics out there, you only need 75 minutes of these vigorous activities each week to see the same benefits.
When you have the option of working from home, it can be easy to fall into a routine of only working from home.
But this can have consequences: for you and your network.
Whether we like it or not, humans are social creatures. We’re wired for interaction with other people. Without that connection, we’re prone to all sorts of ills from insomnia to depression to decreased immunity.
And while remote work comes with a number of perks, increased social interaction isn’t one of them.
That lack of interaction can also create some serious problems for your networking efforts. Think of all the chance and brief encounters you have with coworkers while you’re at the office. Maybe only .05% resulted in a great network connection, but even a half a percent can have an impact depending on who you connected with.
Sure, virtual networking can be a huge help if you’re working remotely. But those online-only contacts may differ than the relationships you form face-to-face. So since your work doesn’t give you a built-in socializing and networking system, you have to put in a bit of extra effort.
Treat networking and “getting out there” just like it’s part of your job. Give a co-working space a whirl. Work from a coffee shop a couple of days a week. (Bonus: working a new space can boost your creativity).
Outside of your day-to-day, drop in on local lectures and business events. Plan to attend a major industry conference or two and take advantage of the smaller conferences that pop up in your area.
But above all, find an outlet or two you enjoy and roll with it. Don’t let FOMO or guilt get the best of you. You don’t have to attend everything, you just need to have something to stay connected.
Hopefully, the previous steps have helped set boundaries.
But even with a near-perfect remote work routine, the best of us can come close to burning out. Rapid project deadlines, emergency meetings, economic upsets—none of them help our stress levels.
This is where knowing your limits is important. You need to make sure you’re always getting enough rest. If that fails,ou have to recognize when you’re approaching the burnout cliff.
Other than familiarizing yourself with the symptoms of burnout, introspection is your best tool. Check in with yourself from time to time.
For those who prefer a more structured approach, consider a SPUNC log. SPUNC categorizes activities and tasks as:
- Sacred, which are critical to your wellbeing
- Preferable, which you enjoy
- Unnecessary, which you don’t need to do
- Necessary, which you should do
- Critical, which you absolutely must do
For Barry Davret, this a tool to prevent preparation paralysis.
But it’s also a great way to fend off burnout.
Most of us spend our time on the U, N, and C part of SPUNC without a lot of time spent on the S or P. After all, even remote workers with unlimited vacation tend to only take two to three weeks of vacation a year.
Yet those sacred and preferable activities are preventative medicine for burnout. They’re the activities that keep us grounded and able to continue pushing towards our goals. So make time for the S and P tasks on your list. They’ll keep you away from a one-way ticket to burnout land.
Ultimately, burnout can happen to everyone, but it shouldn’t have to happen to anyone. With a bit of planning and preparation, remote workers can turn burnout into another relic of the traditional way to work.