Sarah*, 31, is a performance marketing manager. Before the pandemic she was already working from home a couple of days a week as she has endometriosis and suffers with fatigue, so when lockdown was announced in March, working from home was easy at first. But in the new climate of 2020, things went downhill fast. After being furloughed for three months from April, she was expected to return to her normal schedule but the lack of face-to-face communication, together with reckoning with the pandemic's impact on her industry has made her so anxious that she cries most days and struggles to leave the house.
"I feel really lost and confused," she tells R29. "It's difficult to self-motivate when you're at home and you feel like your employer just sees you as a number that they can cut from their budgets. I am looking for work elsewhere but the market is so competitive and I feel guilty going against people who don't have jobs at all."
Sarah is one of many Refinery29 UK readers who responded to a callout about feeling burned out while working from home in the pandemic. Workplace burnout is defined by the World Health Organization as an occupational phenomenon and was added to the ICD-11 (International Classification of Diseases, 11th Revision) in 2019. It’s described as resulting from "chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed". In order to be diagnosed, the sufferer has to report "feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion", "increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job" and "reduced professional efficacy, or ability to be effective at their jobs".
Workplace burnout was already a well-established phenomenon before the pandemic, as was the documented impact of working situations on our mental health. While there are no reported numbers on overall burnout in the UK, stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44% of all work-related ill health cases in 2018/19 and 54% of all working days lost were due to ill health, according to the Health and Safety Executive.
The crisis of 2020 has only exacerbated these problems. Workplace burnout is (unsurprisingly) particularly prevalent among frontline workers: almost half of UK doctors are suffering from burnout in 2020 according to a survey by the British Medical Association, and there have been warnings that nurses and care staff are particularly at risk. But the 60% of UK adults working from home are now also reporting symptoms of burnout. Knowing the hardship that those on the front lines are going through to keep us safe and healthy, it may seem odd that those staying home are also struggling but it appears that the constant stress and pressure of 2020 is taking its toll on everyone, to varying degrees.
The breakdown in communication with colleagues has been a major factor for many WFH-ers like Emily*, 29. The marketing manager has been taking steps to manage her sense of burnout but says her employers are making it harder. "My manager feels pressured and [is] passing it on. It seems there is a huge lack of transparency – teammates are here one minute, gone the next. "
As always, problems like these are only compounded when you are a minority. "I'm burned out and desperately need a proper break to switch off completely," says Aaliyah*, 29, an accountant. "As a non-white woman in a tech company, it's already difficult to raise concerns to management as you risk been seen as 'difficult'. However, I feel that my concerns about my mental health and that of other employees often fall on deaf ears, with the excuse of 'everyone is busy'."
No matter where you are in the corporate structure, the struggle to mitigate burnout has its own unique challenges. Isabelle*, 37, is an operations manager whose job is to support her employees. "I find it hard in my position, as the supporter of 100 people and the only female manager, to ask for help. My job is to help others, not ask for help."
According to a report by the 4 Day Week campaign and think tanks Compass and Autonomy called "Burnout Britain", mental distress among workers during the pandemic is 49% higher compared to 2017-19. Throughout all stages of the COVID-19 crisis, the mental health impacts have been disproportionately felt by women. "Women are 43% more likely to have increased their hours beyond a standard working week than men, and for those with children this was even more clearly associated with mental distress," states the report. A staggering 86% of women who are carrying out a standard working week alongside childcare greater than or equal to the UK average experienced mental distress during April.
The increase in working hours is further backed up by a recent LinkedIn study which found that Brits are putting in an extra 28 hours a month while working from home – equivalent to four working days. While many have enjoyed the lack of commute and more casual working environment, it can mean that stress as well as workload flows into later hours, allowing burnout to creep up on you. Plus, there’s the lack of variety in your work day that would otherwise have been provided by travel, lunch, running errands and socialising. "Our days are therefore becoming grey and our brains are burning and clouding from sitting in front of a screen for so long," Lucy Fuller, a UKCP-accredited psychotherapist, previously told the Huffington Post. "We’re effectively trapped in this way of work without a definite end point to look forward to."
The first step is to make clear distinctions between your day and nighttime routines. "Make sure you have consistent wake and sleep times. This helps regulate your body’s 24-hour circadian rhythm or sleep/wake cycle," she tells Refinery29. "Disrupted circadian rhythms can affect both the quantity and quality of your sleep, which not only affects your energy levels, concentration and performance the following day but may also have long-term implications for your mood, with links to depression and anxiety."
Having clear routines and demarcating work space and (importantly) work hours will stop you running into the trap of working every waking hour or meandering through the day. This will also help you establish limits on your screen time and force you to take breaks. As with seasonal affective disorder, sunlight is important too – both for your circadian rhythm and for your quality of life.
It’s also important not to overload yourself – set boundaries for yourself and with your employer. "Studies show that the more tasks we commit to simultaneously, the lower our attention span is," says Sarah. "This can affect how quickly we complete our tasks, with time often wasted switching between them, making us less efficient and more prone to making mistakes." This lack of efficiency will then drag out the work hours, meaning time spent in front of your screen trying to work will eat into time you should be resting, getting some air or just living beyond your job.
Most importantly, learn to identify the signs of burnout within yourself and give yourself a break. As indulgent as it can feel to cut yourself some slack when there's a global pandemic, you should not push yourself beyond your limits for the sake of it.
*Names have been changed.
If you are struggling with your mental health in any way, you can contact Mind via their website or on 0300 123 3393.