5 Keys to Coping With Burnout in the Age of COVID

Dan Rice
6 min readApr 29, 2021

Have you been overworking yourself to death for the last several months? Have you been languishing, or feeling like there is no point in the things you typically spend your time on? Are you overwhelmed by Zoom fatigue because your company copy-pasted its list of in-person work strategies into its list of remote strategies and is wondering why your team’s productivity is so low?

If so, you are not alone. Regardless of your perspective about COVID-19 and the response to it, it is clear that the restrictions are making people miserable. While many countries say they will be removing these restrictions in the near future, we are still not done with the havoc the pandemic has wrought on our lives.

However, there are several ways to manage or even eliminate some of the worst damage COVID restrictions have caused. Here are a few keys to coping with the stress, making remote work less exhausting, and taking care of yourself in a productive way.

1. KNOW THAT YOU WILL BURN OUT FASTER

If even thinking about COVID-19 makes you uneasy, you are probably like most people and have been trying to cope through serious, underlying stress. Every task is harder, and every meeting is more tedious.

Where you may have been able to go months without taking a break from work before, you will probably find yourself in need of a vacation a lot sooner. Be cognizant of this fact when it comes to both yourself and your coworkers. Consider scheduling that break sooner than you may otherwise have planned so you can detach from work.

2. SET BOUNDARIES AT WORK, EVEN WHEN YOU ARE CLOCKED IN

Remote work is a strange experience to people who are new to it, myself included. For me, an office can set helpful boundaries around where work “happens.” I badly missed the office as soon as COVID regulations set in, and am thrilled to be back in one as of late.

Remote work has its advantages, of course. The new-fangled thing is for offices to be “open,” a word which here means “unproductive and horribly designed,” so many employees will likely find it easier to focus away from their neighbor’s phone calls and loud conversations. But without the appropriate boundaries, you may find yourself working longer hours and feeling more worn out than ever.

For example, consider setting an alarm for the time when your workday is over. If you clock out at 5 PM, clock out! Or, if you absolutely have to stay late one day, leave early the next day. You are in control when you work from home, but that agency is a double-edged sword. Since you have no commute to make and no clear starting or stopping point, it can be all too easy to sit at the computer and keep on working.

3. CONQUERING ZOOM

We all know that video calls are crap. Conversations are unnatural through them, you cannot read the body language of the other person when most of their body is not in the frame, and even if you could, they are hunched over their display staring at their own picture in the corner most of the time, so they probably just look stressed out.

Pro tip: turn off or cover up the picture of yourself once you know you are in the frame. Having a live video of yourself on the screen while attempting to work is incredibly distracting! Imagine staring into a mirror for an hour. Now imagine trying to also make productive, thoughtful decisions while you do it.

Sounds awful, right? But that is exactly what most (well-intentioned but inexperienced) companies have their employees do when working remotely, and it is likely to wear you and your team out quickly.

There are lots of other ways to make video calls less stressful and more focused, like choosing Speaker View over Gallery View and keeping your hands away from the keyboard to avoid multitasking. A common joke about Zoom is that they give away their best feature, to cut calls off after 40 minutes, for free! Be conscious of how your calls are going and think about how they could be improved.

Make video calls fun. They are a poor method of communicating important information.

Make video calls fun. They are a poor method of communicating important information.

4. ASYNCHRONOUS COMMUNICATION IS KING

The Basecamp team, creators of the software framework Ruby on Rails, were 100% remote long before COVID-19. They have been extremely successful at building a profitable business with reasonable working hours and compensation for staff.

One of their best tips about working remotely is that companies that try to take their in-person processes and put them in a remote environment are doomed to fail. Productivity strategies that work in an in-person office, like large team meetings, are nearly worthless for sharing information within a remote team. Likewise, strategies that have always been ineffective for communicating important information, like Slack ping-pong messages, are no better for remote teams than they are for in-person teams.

So wait. How should a remote team communicate? The answer is to work asynchronously. As long as management trusts their employees to get their work done — and they should, why were those employees hired in the first place? — your company can let your employees do their own thing at their own pace and primarily communicate mission-critical information using long-form, written communication.

Long-form writing in a centralized location like Basecamp, Confluence, or a GitHub repository (or, for one-time announcements, email) allows teams to clearly articulate what they are doing and know where that “source of truth” is for reference. As soon as the information is shared in these kinds of tools, it is documented for others to read later.

To be sure, video calls and Slack messages have their place, like a fun watercooler-style conversation or a quick sync-up between two employees. But if it is truly important for an employee to know something, make sure it is written down.

5. WHEN YOU DETACH, REALLY DETACH

I am one of the worst offenders at taking not-vacations, because I usually like to work so much. A not-vacation is when you keep checking Slack and email or find different work to do than your typical 9–5 responsibilities. Personally, I have also found that I feel as though I never really took a break if I scroll through social media or play video games all weekend long.

Instead of not-working, consider what true detachment would feel like — what well-being practices can you follow to really feel rejuvenated? Turn off all of the work-related notifications. Read a book, specifically in a form factor that does not bombard you with notifications while you try and focus. Take a walk and leave all of your electronics at home. Get some extra sleep. Time off is your time, not the office’s.

ALMOST THERE

COVID regulations are already easing up. Things are only going to get better from here. You have shown incredible resilience and strength working through this difficult time. Be proud of all you have done to keep going, and take care!

Originally published at https://www.novumopus.com on April 29, 2021.

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Dan Rice

I write about code, finance, and careers. You can find my blog at https://danrice.me