How to avoid WFH burnout: 5 ways to leave work at work (even if you never leave the house)

With the coronavirus pandemic causing millions to work from home for the first time, work from home (WFH) productivity is on everyone’s mind. But what’s more important than making sure you get enough done when you work from home is knowing when to stop

The lines between work and non-work were already blurred before the current situation. But they’re almost non-existent when your office is your bedroom, kitchen, living room (or even just adjacent to these spaces). 

Work from home burnout is a serious issue. And it’s only getting more serious with the uncertainty, stress, and additional home responsibilities of our current situation.  

It’s probably safe to say that how we handle this crisis will set the tone for how we work for years to come. So how can you make sure you leave work at work even if you never leave the house?   

Why the coronavirus has created a perfect storm for WFH burnout 

If you feel like your days have been blending together lately, you’re not alone. 

A Cleveland TV station recently added a segment called “What day is it?”

That’s it. That’s the whole show. 

While it was easier to compartmentalize your workweek with things like commutes, weekend plans, and Monday morning banter, our current situation has made those rituals disappear. 

Instead, days seem to blend together. Afternoons suddenly turn to nights. Weekdays and weekends become interchangeable. Our sense of time is totally thrown off, making it easier than ever to work (or think about work) all the time.

To make matters worse, people who transition to remote work often suffer from what’s called WFHG (work-from-home guilt).

As Laura M. George writes in Harvard Business Review:

“Many employees who are working remotely for the first time are likely to struggle to preserve healthy boundaries between their professional and personal lives. To signal their loyalty, devotion, and productivity, they may feel they have to work all the time.”

Even before coronavirus, we knew that employees who feel “on” all the time are at a higher risk of burnout. But this feeling has become even more pronounced in the current situation.

In the search for some sense of normality, many of us latch onto work. But the more you’re “always-on” the more your team will be the same. 

In a series of five studies, researchers found that:

“Senders of after-hours work emails underestimate how compelled receivers feel to respond right away, even when such emails are not urgent.”

All this leads to a perfect storm of WFH burnout: prolonged periods of stress caused by uncertainty, a lack of boundaries (both in time and space) and the added stress of adapting to working from home.

No one should have to feel burnt out. We’ve put together one of the top resources on how to diagnose and bounce back from burnout including practical exercises and tools to help. 

5 ways to protect yourself from WFH burnout 

Burnout is caused by prolonged periods of stress and uncertainty. And while we can’t control what’s happening in the outside world, we can take control over our own days.

A positive work-life balance (including being able to disconnect at the end of the day) is one of the foundations of mental health. Unfortunately, so much of the past advice relies on social interaction. Go to the gym. Meet up with friends. Take a vacation.

Instead, we need a new way to think about how to disconnect and avoid WFH burnout. Here are a few suggestions to help you get started.

1. Create a dedicated WFH space (even if it’s just a chair at your kitchen table)

One of the most important things you can do to protect yourself from burnout is to create boundaries for your day.

While a lot of that has to do when and how much you work, it also has to do with where you work. 

As Abby from Stack Overflow writes:

“It’s been crucial for me to designate space and time for work, even when I’m living in a place without much room to spare. Even just having a few square feet in the corner that I don’t use for anything else helps a ton with being able to switch my ‘work brain’ on and off.”

You don’t need a corner office at home to make this work. All you need is a dedicated workspace that lets you walk away at the end of the day (like you would at the office).  

If you have kids at home, a dedicated space can also help create boundaries with them. Set up a system to let them know when it’s ok to visit or when you need time to focus. 

2. Use “rituals” to start and end your workday

Even if you’re working a flexible schedule because you’re looking after kids, you need little reminders to help you move between the different “states” of your day and actually focus on what’s in front of you. 

A physical workspace helps you separate work from the rest of your home life. But you need to pair physical boundaries with mental ones as well.

Rituals are symbolic actions performed at key moments that help us maintain our habits, switch contexts, and keep work at work

Management researcher Blake Ashforth calls these “boundary-crossing activities”–physical and social indicators that something has changed. Here are a few examples:

Example rituals to start your day:

  • Shower and put on work clothes
  • Make coffee and plan your daily to-do list
  • Go for a walk (to replace your commute)

Example rituals to end your day:

  • Close all browser tabs and clean up your desktop
  • Set your phone in airplane mode as you cook
  • Put away your laptop and read a chapter of a book

In the end, the rituals themselves don’t matter as much as what they mean to you.

3. Set realistic goals and track your progress 

The more clearly you can see the positive progress you make each day, the less likely you’ll be to overwork and hit WFH burnout. 

Of course, none of these boundaries or rituals matter if you’re completely overwhelmed (or suffering serious work-from-home guilt). Instead, you need to set realistic goals for each day and have an easy way to track your progress

Researchers have found that the most important factor for feeling accomplished and happy at the end of the day is seeing real progress on meaningful work.

The “Progress Principle” as it’s called, keeps you motivated, energized, and happy (the opposite of WFH burnout). But it’s not always easy to track your progress when you work from home. 

That’s where a tool like RescueTime can help. 

The RescueTime dashboard quickly shows the progress you’ve made each day and where you can improve your productivity.

RescueTime is an automatic time tracking and productivity tool that shows you exactly how much time you’re spending on apps, websites, and even specific documents. You can set daily goals on how you want to spend your time and get real-time alerts when you go over. 

For example, I have a daily alert for when I hit 4 hours on productive work which automatically prompts me to add my daily highlights (projects I’ve completed or progress I’ve made). 

Highlights track your progress on important projects and give you an overview of how you’ve spent your day.

A number of studies agree that most knowledge workers are only productive for around 3 hours a day. So not only do I get a reminder that I’m putting in productive hours, but also a chance to record my daily achievements and see real progress. 

Check out our full guide on How to use RescueTime when you work from home.

4. Go offline when you need to focus on your most important work 

Give yourself space to do important work so you have time and energy for everything else later on.

Stephen King has a famous quote about writing that is equally important for working from home:

“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”

When you need to focus and make progress on important work you need to be distraction-free. This means shutting both the physical door (to family or home distractions) and your virtual door (i.e. your inbox, chat app, and every other notification-sending tool). 

In an office, it’s easy to shut a door or do something else to signal that you’re focused and shouldn’t be bothered. But at home, your colleagues (or family) don’t see those.

Instead, you need to rely on a few tools at your disposal:

  • DND/airplane mode: Every device has some way to shut off notifications (or just the internet in general). At a minimum, close your inbox and chat app. Or, use a tool like FocusTime that automatically blocks just your most distracting websites and tools when you need to focus.  
  • Conversations about your schedule: Working from home means losing visibility. Take a few minutes to talk to your coworkers about when you’re available and when you need to focus (you can do the same with your family!)
  • Custom status updates: Use the tools that people interrupt you with to inform them of your stats. Most chat apps have custom statuses, or you can use something like the RescueTime for Slack integration that automatically updates your status based on how focused you are (and can even block notifications and distractions for you). 
RescueTime for Slack interface
RescueTime for Slack lets your team see what you’re doing no matter where you work.

5. Stop checking emails outside of working hours (and tell others why you aren’t)

You have control over when you’re available. But you’ll never stick to your schedule if you don’t tell others what you’re doing.

132 billion business emails are sent every single day. And many of them come in outside of work hours. To protect yourself from WFH burnout, you can’t be beholden to your inbox at all hours of the day. 

Again, this often comes down to communicating expectations. Have conversations with your team about when you’ll respond to messages (and when you’re offline).

For external emails, try using a custom out-of-office message or even your signature to inform and set expectations. 

Lastly, give yourself a break.

We all need help carving out time that’s just for us. Work can’t infiltrate every moment of our days. That’s true now as well as in the future when we adapt to whatever the “new normal” is. 

But that’s the problem. None of what we’re going through is “normal.”

And while the advice above should help you create boundaries and avoid WFH burnout, it takes time to build it into your habits and routines.

So give yourself a break. It’s ok to time to figure this out and discover what your personal “normal” is going forward.

Do you have any tips for staying healthy and setting boundaries when you work from home? Let us know in the comments below.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

6 comments

  1. Thank you for this article. I’ve been struggling with WFH burnout! I will start the Ritual to Go for a walk (to replace your commute). It passed my mind, but I would normally get a lift to work, and that took 15 minutes. It then occurred to me, that 15 minutes by car is not the same on foot. Jory, you’ve helped me work out what I must now do.

    1. It’s definitely true that it’s more difficult to get exercise in the current situation and that we need to find new ways to work it into our schedule. For me, this has meant some simple at-home exercises (bodyweight) most days as well as occasional walks in the neighborhood.

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