- The lack of separation between your work and personal life can make it hard to diagnose burnout.
- Once you know the signs, you can recognize it before it happens.
- Here's how to get started with setting boundaries and building your burnout recovery plan.
Signs of burnout were easier to spot when commuting to an office was the norm. Maybe you felt exhausted just by the idea of driving to work or were relieved to get home at the end of the day. The physical separation between your work and personal life made it easier to identify what caused your stress or fatigue. But remote work — despite reducing burnout levels overall — blurs those lines by erasing the on- or off-the-clock boundary.
More employers than ever now offer hybrid and remote positions, challenging us to reframe our thinking around burnout. We’re breaking down the risks of burnout, how to avoid it, and strategies to recover from it.
Recognizing the signs
Common symptoms of burnout include trouble concentrating or completing tasks on time, anger or sadness, insomnia, and even physical symptoms like headaches and exhaustion. Though we often think of burnout as the cumulative product of work stress, it can be activated by specific events like layoffs or economic turmoil.
When gauging the severity of burnout, consider the frequency, intensity, and duration. Peggie Lee, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in Northern California, said those factors could help clarify whether a person is experiencing situational depression, adjustment disorder with depression, anxiety, burnout, or a combination of those elements.
“When you're looking at symptoms of burnout, is it happening in multiple areas or is it just having to do with work?” Lee asked. “You want to look at what triggers you: Is it something work-specific? If you're feeling extra prickly at work, but you're fine with girlfriends or your housemates, then you can see that there's a clear demarcation.”
Risk factors in remote work
Burnout may have decreased for some with the rise of remote work, but working from home comes with its own challenges.
Work friends help many of us to decompress from the stress of a bad day or a disastrous meeting. It’s harder to foster those interactions over channels like Slack or Zoom. “There's just something about having that space or even a ritual: Going to the coffee machine every morning, or checking in with everybody,” Lee said.
There’s also the fact that many remote workers are putting in longer hours with less time to pause. Physical and mental breaks are critical for avoiding burnout, improving productivity, and reducing mistakes, whether they’re remote or not.
Finally, there’s the boundary issue. When your living and workspace are more or less the same, drawing the line between your work and personal life can be tough. During the Covid lockdown, Lee tried to avoid burnout by creating a commute. She would actually get in her car and drive around the block before returning to her home office.
“There was something about just that act that was so helpful (to decrease the level of burnout),” Lee said.
Boundaries apply both to expectations you set for yourself and with your team. For example, if you have the space to create a dedicated office in your home, using that area solely for work allows you to “leave” your job behind and disconnect at the end of the day. (If you live in a small space, placing your laptop in a cabinet or closet at the end of the day works, too.)
Implementing a startup and shutdown ritual can also shift your mental state. Instead of rolling out of bed and firing up email in your pajamas, embrace a morning routine of getting dressed and making coffee before you log on for the day.
When the day is over, let it be over. Barring an emergency, there’s no reason to respond to messages from work late into the night. If your team expects otherwise, then it’s time to adjust their expectations around when you are available, and when they can expect a response to an after-hours request.
Just like a midday change of scenery can be welcome in the office, breaks can also prevent burnout while working from home. Make an effort throughout the day to move and stretch hourly, hydrate or caffeinate, and even exercise or meditate. If you have a neighbor who also works from home, consider coordinating schedules for a midday walk; you can celebrate each other’s workday wins together, or act as a sounding board for problems.
And don’t forget about vacations! People need prolonged breaks to recharge, so use your vacation time and enjoy some rest.
Building a burnout recovery plan
Burnout is a frequent topic on Glassdoor’s online community platform for professionals. The shared wisdom from the community members is that recovering from burnout takes time, planning, and a support system.
Every person is different, but it’s not uncommon for recovery to take several months. How long varies according to how severe the case of burnout is. Lee noted that she had a client who took disability leave to deal with a severe case of burnout and was able to go back to work several months later after establishing clear boundaries with their boss. By taking that time and working with a therapist, the client learned what was activating the burnout and developed healthy habits to avoid it in the future.
Lee recommends using every resource available to combat burnout, whether it’s a therapist, a coach, or even a friend. Recovering from burnout starts with admitting that you’re experiencing burnout and tapping into a community of friends or professionals for help and accountability.
Don’t be afraid to express your feelings, and invite your friends to join you in self-care activities. “It's really saying, ‘I'm struggling. Let's help each other. Can someone help me?’” Lee said.
Mental health at work
Burnout doesn’t resolve itself. Untreated, it not only shapes how you feel about your work, but it can also affect your daily life. Addressing mental health at work — whether remote or in person — makes you a healthier individual and a better worker.
Check out this guide to learn more about beating burnout.