Is work from home causing a burnout?

Written by Jayashree Narayanan
| Pune |

Updated: May 26, 2020 12:46:18 pm

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Virtual burnout is a real issue for professionals spending increased amounts of time before their computers as they work from home (WFH). For one 27-year-old commodity trader, it meant going in for spectacles as an eye test showed his vision had dimmed during the lockdown due to excessive screen time. On a typically busy day, he attends up to 25 calls a day, across time zones, lasting “on an average, 20-25 minutes and last night, it was 95 minutes.”

Meanwhile, Bengaluru-based Vaibhav Jalan, who is an associate vice-president for a business vertical in Bengaluru, has lately been complaining of recurring headaches. Exhaustion, tiredness, constant headaches, drowsiness, irritability, etc, are some signs of burnout amid the coronavirus pandemic. “If you have been feeling exhausted, even though your work just demands talking/sitting through video calls, then you may have experienced virtual meeting burnout leading to fatigue, decreased sustained attention and straining cognitive resources,” explained Ajeeta Mulye, psychologist and outreach associate, Mpower – The Foundation.

Video and audio calls, whether through Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex, Zoom, GotoMeet, Google Hangouts or WhatsApp among others, are the need of the hour. While these were the norm even pre-lockdown, the monotony can exacerbate the problem of a ‘virtual burnout’ or virtual meeting burnout for professionals from various fields, including Information Technology (IT), marketing, advertising, media and more, who are currently practicing WFH. “Virtual meetings can lead to loneliness due to lack of physical presence and communication making the environment around serious, and increased workload further affecting productivity. It’s important to realise that due to high use of technology, there will always be emails to reply to, Zoom meetings to attend, and messages to check. So, one is likely to experience a burnout,” commented Mulye.

While not classified as a medical condition, burnout is categorised as an “occupational phenomenon” as per International Classification of Diseases under World Health Organization (WHO). According to its definition, burnout is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions, which are feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.

“During WFH, the work hours stretch endlessly, often 12-13 hours, which leave employees more drained than ever. Virtual calls, with employers frantically touching base at all times, ironically reduces productivity rather than boosting it,” remarked Shonali Singh, 27, account manager with an advertising agency. She added, “These calls to check on employee productivity increase the screen time and makes us restless. We have to devote extra hours to cover up the time wasted on these calls.”

According to InnerHour, a global mental health platform, there has been 70 per cent increase in session bookings for therapists. “Many employees complain of extreme exhaustion and the blurring lines between professional and personal space affect work-life balance. The restrictions on movement and not being able to go out adds to this. Productivity is also hampered due to lack of immediate feedback from supervisors and distractions at home,” commented Dr Amit Malik, co-founder, InnerHour.

Agreed 29-year-old Ali, a hospitality and tourism consultant, “It’s absolutely crazy at times. Half the day goes in attending calls. When do you actually get time to work? And then you end up working almost till 11-12 at night or even beyond. It takes a toll on your mental stability.”

Considering a total virtual disconnect is impossible, how are companies reaching out to support their employees? “There has been a mental health response desk set up by my company. They also actively engage us in various fun activities, some of which are compulsory to attend,” shared one professional.

E-commerce giant Flipkart has introduced weekly webinars on topics such as fitness, self-care, meditation, workplace ergonomics and ways to manage stress and anxiety for employees. “In order to foster a sense of togetherness and uplift their spirit, the company has also enabled an active online community where Flipsters (Flipkart employees) have been posting pictures of their #WorkFromHomeLife, which is helping people stay connected in a positive spirit,” mentioned the company in a release.

So, is it possible to draw a line between work and personal life? Explained Dr Achal Bhagat in a Facebook Live chat with indianexpress.com, “Given that the screen time has increased, one of the ways I am managing is to disconnect, avoiding screens when not required.”

While Jalan makes it a point to take breaks and connect with family and friends over calls, Ali manages to squeeze in some “workstation stretches“. “Since it’s Ramadan and I am fasting, I am not working on core exercises but since you keep sitting the whole day, one needs to stretch a bit,” he said.

Here are some tips by Mulye:

Set priorities and limit access

This is important to maintain balance. Not all meetings are “urgent” or necessary to attend. Learn to filter the meetings you need to attend. Avoid scheduling back-to-back meetings even if it is easier to get it over with in one go. Also, limit when you answer mails as it can be tempting to reply to mails at all hours. If we wouldn’t do this in office, why do it now?

Taking breaks in between

If you have many meetings in a day, try to take small intentional breaks to recharge yourself. A movement break or a to stretch helps in feeling less lethargic and offers a change of scene, even if it means moving from one room to another or opening the refrigerator to have something.

Changing the sensory mode

If you are feeling overstimulated, keep the audio on and turn off the video during meetings. This will sustain attention and give you a break from staring at the screen.

Take time off

As much as possible, make sure to cut off from work post-office hours to unwind.

Hygiene functions

Look into your mental, emotional and physical hygiene. Indulge in planned self-care by engaging into hobbies/“me time”, getting quality sleep, as well as eating well and right.

Seek professional help

If burnout persists for long duration leading to stress, body aches, and frequent changes in mood, then seek psychological professional help.

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