Millions of Americans trying to manage working from home and ever-changing health guidelines have another pandemic side-effect to balance: burnout.
Neither pandemic stress nor burnout is new — but the burnout workers are feeling right now is different. With vaccinations up and Covid-19 cases down at the beginning of the summer, many people excitedly planned for a near-normal fall, taking their masks off, booking travel and counting down the days until they could see their co-workers in person again. The highly contagious delta variant, however, has dashed such hopes: cases are spiking once again, and many companies, including Apple and Facebook, that had previously announced a fall return to office have now pushed their plans to 2022.
"The second pandemic fall is almost worse than the first because a lot of people were hoping, and getting ready for, a light at the end of the tunnel," Laura Pendergrass, Ph.D., an industrial psychologist who advises Fortune 500 companies, tells CNBC Make It. "People were fatigued at the beginning of the lockdown, but it's even more tiring to concentrate on work when the world still feels like it's off the rails 18 months later."
According to a recent TINYpulse survey, about 86% of remote workers say they've experienced a great deal of burnout, compared to roughly 69% of in-person employees.
Though working from home may feel impossible at times, there are small changes we can make in our routines to make our work (and lives) happier and more engaging. Below, Pendergrass shares her best tips for fighting burnout while working remotely:
Make time to recharge
The Covid-19 pandemic has hardly led to more time off — in fact, research from NordVPN Teams found that remote employees are clocking in an additional 2.5 hours of work every day compared to their pre-pandemic schedule.
Instead, workers should spend at least one hour every day stepping away from their computer screens and doing an activity they love, Pendergrass says. "If you're working from home, especially for 18 months, work can seep into all corners of your life," she adds. "Breaks help us pause and re-adjust our work-life balance."
Start with a list of activities that boost your mood and set aside time in your schedule, whether it be in the morning, at lunch or between meetings, to relax. "Even 20 minutes to go on a walk, watch a new TV show or read a chapter in a book can help with energy and focus," Pendergrass explains. "Experiment with different types of breaks to stimulate your brain."
Re-write your to-do list
Coping with a pandemic — especially while watching a familiar, scary pace of rising Covid-19 cases — can feel overwhelming. Facing an endless to-do list at work and at home only piles on unnecessary stress, Pendergrass says. "The best way to fight burnout is to set manageable goals for yourself," she says. "If your goal is to tackle an intense, months-long project, that's not going to give you the positive, mental reinforcement you need."
These shorter-term goals can be anything that can be checked off of your to-do list by the end of the day or, at most, the end of the week, Pendergrass advises, such as cleaning your kitchen, responding to emails or scheduling a meeting with a co-worker. Making lists not only helps us navigate the chaos of life, but it can help quell anxiety and renew our sense of purpose, she adds, even when we're isolated from our co-workers and lonely while working from home.
Tackle a new project
Burnout doesn't just happen when we're overwhelmed — it can also sneak up on us when we feel like we're not doing enough. "When every day feels repetitive and monotonous, that can lead to burnout," Pendergrass says. "Workers may feel like they're not doing anything truly impactful, like there's no clear finish line they can ever cross."
To stave off burnout, Pendergrass encourages workers to reflect on what they can do to renew their sense of hope and agency in their current job. "Ask yourself: 'How can I use my skills in a better, or different way at work?' and 'What can I do to contribute to the company in a new way, that maybe other people haven't thought of?'" she says.
Workers should also explore side projects or committees that they can get involved in to remind them that they are capable of making a positive impact on the world, even in these difficult times. "It's really important to find hope," Pendergrass says. "Your work matters."