Avoid burnout while working from home

22 October 2021


With our working lives having taken an unexpected change and an abrupt shift to remote working, our need to adapt quickly and efficiently has been brought to the fore. Thousands of businesses and millions of employees have very effectively stepped up to the challenge of work from home (WFH) and are now entering a new era of hybrid working options.

Going digital has become a real necessity, and a substantial amount of infrastructural change, patience and openness has been necessary to adapt to this immense challenge. While most of us have done well to acclimatise to this new way of working, research shows that burnout is becoming a threat, as a result of long-term working from home. 

The recent Allianz Partner’s and Wrkit Global Working from Home Survey has highlighted a number of issues with ongoing remote working ,and while there are increased benefits such as better sleep planning, participants feeling more rested and being more physically well, there are also areas of concern including the negative impact on diet, body shape, inadequate time for breaks and disconnectedness and isolation. 

Although there was a positive score with feeling psychically well, WFH has meant that a larger amount of our day is now being spent siting, up to 4 hours longer each day while not commuting to the office. There is concern surrounding the long-term effects this additional sitting time will have on our physical health.

Working by ourselves at home or away from the office for extended periods and without much in-person social interaction with colleagues is having a negative effect on group culture, with many employees feeling isolated and distant from their workplace. Not to mention the impact of reduced in-person creativity and relationship building, which companies and health experts are interested in monitoring over time, and they are working on the best interventions to avoid further negative impact.

Companies have seen a surprisingly high level increase in productivity from employees WFH; however, the hidden cost to employees is added pressure, and more stress trying to maintain this level of productivity and an inability to switch off or adequality separate out and balance their working days.

The discourse around workplace burnout has increased in recent years as awareness of the damaging mental health effects of long-term, chronic, inefficiently managed stress at work has risen. With employees working longer hours and dealing with the pressures of remote working and lockdown, incidences of burnout  and consequently the need to take time off work have been prevalent. This has been especially problematic among healthcare workers, with mental health related absences reported to have cost the NHS £805 million from January 2020 to June 2021.

Burnout can be avoided, but only when people are given the tools to recognise and manage the signs of stress that can result in burnout when working in isolation for long periods. As with all forms of stress, human psychology reacts to the increase in workplace stress in three key evolutionary ways: fight, freeze and flight.

Those who have a fight response to stress may experience increased irritability and anger. This can be accompanied by urges to lash out, a frequently raised voice, and a tendency to be accusatory towards others or the situation. This response can also manifest itself physically with a tight jaw or tight shoulders, neck pain, high blood pressure, clenched fists and a red face.

The freeze response is manifested in an inability to concentrate, brain fog, the mind freezing or locking up and becoming forgetful. Those experiencing a freeze response may find themselves avoiding certain situations, distancing or isolating themselves further from others and becoming demotivated both at work and with aspects of life.

The flight response can cause people experiencing stress to become restless, fidgety and unable to sleep. They may also feel trapped and excessively or constantly worried. The physical manifestation of the flight response is anxiety-like symptoms, such as a tight chest, affected breathing, stomach pains and excess sweating.

It is the accumulation of stress, coupled with the continued pressure to perform at a heightened level over time, and without sufficient breaks and down time, that leads eventually to burnout.

If you notice signs of stress and a build-up of tension in the body, it is important to manage both as quickly as possible. Allowing stressors to persist on a long-term basis will lead to burnout, as the brain and body feel overloaded and are not functioning in a healthy way.

Stress makes your brain and body operate at high speed, and one of the first steps to combat this is relaxation tools to slow it down. Guided meditations and focused breathing are effective ways to achieve this, and they have an additional beneficial action through stimulation of the diaphragm and the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve runs through the diaphragm muscle, and is activated in deep breathing exercises, a parasympathetic response, and the nervous system’s relaxed state is triggered. In addition, the heartbeat naturally slows during deep breathing as the body works to ensure that the lungs are properly filled with oxygen and that excessive pressure in the arteries is avoided.

Focusing on a good sleep hygiene plan to ensure you are sleeping well and adequately will help to regulate stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol in the body.

Establishing a consistent bedtime routine so your body and brain know when to start winding down, by going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, really helps the rhythm of the body. Avoiding a lot of exercise, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol in the evenings helps, as well as limiting blue light exposure from mobile devices, for a half hour before going to bed will improve sleep and good quality rest.

Good sleep hygiene helps to keep cortisol and adrenaline fluctuations in a normal rhythm, improving mood, lowering stress and generally supporting mental wellbeing. Good rest is key to wellbeing.

Exercising boosts the production of the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters – endorphins. Any aerobic exercise will pump endorphins through the body, reducing stress. In addition, activity leads to positive physical effects, such as improving cardiovascular, digestive and immune health and can protect the body from the negative physical fight, flight, freeze responses.

Conversely, exercising too much and too hard without adequate recovery can add to the burden on the nervous system. Individuals that like to do intense exercise might want to back off slightly on the volume or load to give their nervous system more time to recover. Choosing restorative forms of exercise such as walking, yoga and pilates instead of some of the more intense workouts during the week can be beneficial.

In addition to exercise, daily pick-me-ups such as spending 10 minutes in a park or the garden can be beneficial in minimising stress. Fresh air and greenery are instant mood boosters that do not require putting time aside like a long, strenuous workout. These daily pick-me-ups also provide the necessary regular breaks from work and help avoid burnout. 

Journaling or reflecting is an effective way to manage stress as it encourages people to explore the cause of their stress. It is a good technique to gain a deeper understanding of stress by putting it into words and then working to improve the root causes of these negative stressors.

Reflecting will also provide the tools to mindfully treat stress triggers, rather than simply managing the symptoms of the stress. This will reduce overall stress as problems are solved and removed, leading to greater long-term confidence and avoiding burnout. 

Although it is thanks to technological advances that remote working was made possible during the pandemic, technology itself is a double-edged sword. Giving the brain time to switch off can be easier said than done. Pre-pandemic, there were clearer parameters between work and home life, and the commute in between served to highlight this transition. In the remote working world these lines are now blurred.  We can be tempted to check messages and emails while on a morning walk before starting work or while attempting to wind down after dinner; so the home office space becomes blended into our living space. This constant exposure to work-related technology can have psychological consequences and an lead to aninability to switch off.

Social media can also interfere with switching off an active mind and distract from getting tasks done, which can lead to work piling up, and ultimately contribute to burnout.

It is good to set clear parameters around when you open and close your laptop. If you have a designated home office space, try to keep all work confined to it and don’t bring the laptop around the house. Try not to bring your phone with you when walking or exercising, or keep it on “do not disturb” mode, don’t bring it into the bedroom before sleep, and charge it outside the room. Be conscious of how much time you spend on social media and look at ways to reduce this. 

If you successfully identify the main contributors to stress, don’t be afraid to seek help to manage it better. Speaking to a professional can be very beneficial to manage and release stress, even if you don’t know what exactly is causing the burnout, and they may be able to help you gain some clarity. If it is work-related, speak to your employer about the situation and look to potentially sharing the workload or help with reprioritising. Speak to family and friends too so they are  more aware of the situation. 
To manage stress, it is a good idea to regularly step back and look at what needs to be done in order of priority, and direct your energy appropriately. There is no point in letting the small, less-important tasks overly absorb your limited energy. Take a look at the bigger picture and make a plan, then break the plan down into smaller bite-sized chunks that you can direct your energy towards on a day to day, week to week basis, until you feel like you’ve got things under control. Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ to things that may be derailing this focus. At the beginning of the day write down the actions you want to take and list them out. At the end of the workday look at what you achieved to remind yourself of how much you do and recognise what you can let go of. 

Stress and burnout is something that we all experience at various stages of our lives, but we have the power to take control and manage many of the variables that can contribute to this. We all have inner resources such as adaptation skills and resilience.  It all starts with recognition and then taking the necessary steps.


For more information visit the Allianz Partner’s Global Working From Home Survey