When many of us began working remotely at the start of the pandemic, there seemed to be some advantages to working from home: no lengthy and costly commutes, more family time, greater flexibility, and more time to exercise. Since then, though, we’ve discovered there are downsides. The truth is, working from home can lead to overwhelm, exhaustion, and even burnout. That’s partly the result of blurred lines between our work and personal lives.
“‘Working From Home Fatigue’ isn’t all in your head,” says Risa Mish, J.D., a professor of management at Cornell University, “it’s a real thing.” She says telltale signs include: “feeling distracted, unable to disconnect from work, feeling detached from colleagues, and experiencing a sense of ‘Zoom Dread’ — that you just can’t face another virtual meeting.”
The body deals with WFH-related stress with that all too familiar fight-or-flight response, says Mish. She describes this as “our internal Code Red/alert signal, when our adrenal glands produce a surge of hormones (cortisol and adrenaline).” But this system is intended as a temporary response to imminent danger, Mish says. “Being constantly flooded with stress hormones leaves us depleted, which is where a lot of us are right now.”
Here are eight ways to combat WFH fatigue and replenish your energy.
Write down all your concerns
Take out a piece of paper (not a device) and jot down everything you’re worried about, whether it’s health or financial fears, or forgetting a birthday. “No worry is too insignificant to include,” Mish says, noting that unaddressed concerns can turn into “energy vampires” that deplete you. Writing them down prepares you to take action and decrease stress. “If multiple Zoom meetings a day are draining the life out of you,” notes Mish, “perhaps you and your co-workers could urge your supervisor to shift some of them to email updates, and designate a day a week as a ‘No Zoom Zone.’”
Choose which concerns to set aside
There may be some things you’ve written down that are not critical right now, such as completing a D.I.Y. project. “One friend told me he’s worried about his soon-to-expire passport,” says Mish. “Yes, there is a backlog of passport renewal requests, but, really, I asked him: ‘Will you be traveling internationally any time soon?’” You may be surprised to find that some concerns you set aside resolve themselves, says Mish, or someone else steps up to deal with them. Either way, you’re saving your emotional energy.
De-clutter your office — and your life!
Whether it’s the physical clutter of files and papers or the digital clutter of emails, some stressors are best dealt with by removing them, says Mish. And that’s true of relationships that seem negative: Consider letting them go. “If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that time is precious, and we should devote it to relationships and commitments that bring us joy. Everything else is clutter.”
Set healthy boundaries with your screens
To combat overwhelm and allow yourself to unwind, set a time to switch off your devices. “When the Oxford English Dictionary decides that ‘doomscrolling’ qualifies as a Word of the Year, we know we are doing too much of it,” says Mish, adding that cutting down on news consumption can help lower stress and fatigue. “Yes, it’s important to be well informed, but resist overloading yourself with upsetting content.”
Shift your mindset
Changing our response to a concern can make the world of difference to the way we feel. As Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” “When it feels as if we aren’t in control of something, it pays to remind ourselves that we are always in charge of our own response,” says Mish. Try reframing difficulties. “Instead of saying, ‘It’s too much to bear,’ use affirming language: ‘These challenges won’t last forever, and I’m stronger than they are.’” Or, ask yourself what your difficulties are teaching you that can make you wiser. Mish has one novel suggestion: Imagine your favorite comic using one of your stressors in her routine. “I picture Wanda Sykes saying, ‘Zoom offers me a Touch Up My Appearance feature! But it does very little… 2020 has me needing Zoom to merge with Photoshop!’”
Studies show that during the current health crisis, people who’ve responded to stress and fear by, for example, sewing masks or picking up groceries for homebound neighbors are energized and more positive. “By giving to others, they’re also making things better for themselves, replacing helplessness with helping,” says Mish.
Meditate and/or practice deep breathing
When you feel anxious or fatigued, pause and take some conscious breaths: Inhale through your nose for four counts, hold for four counts, and then exhale through your mouth. Repeat four times. Or do a guided meditation. There are many available online for free.
Write a list of things that bring you joy — and do them!
It could be walking on the beach, reading a novel, dancing to music that holds happy memories from your youth, playing with a pet, or chatting with a supportive friend (the old-fashioned way, on the phone)! Watching comedy is therapeutic, too. “Laughter blots out worry — at least for a while,” says Mish. For inspiration, here’s a list of the “Best Stand-Up Comedy Specials” on Netflix. Not everything on your list will be possible during the pandemic, but schedule time to do some of those joyful activities.
A final thought from Mish: “2020 has challenged all of us; if you are feeling stressed, you are not alone. And, if you haven’t spent this pandemic learning to code, speak Italian, or perfect your sourdough bread-baking skills, it’s OK! You’ve survived, and that is worth celebrating.”