As the weeks dragged by in the immediate aftermath of the shelter in place order of 2020, a soupy sort of miasma seemed to settle over a sizable portion of those working from home. For some, this manifested as a sense of pointlessness and stagnation, or a listless disinterest in work and productivity, or even a tendency to snap easily and often.
Sitting on the sofa in a bathrobe and staring blankly at a laptop screen despite a growing to-do list was not a one-off occurrence for those trapped within their own four walls. In fact, during that time period, social media was overrun by people sharing their greatest accomplishments – binge watching entire seasons of the latest Netflix shows in one sitting.
For those not ‘in the know’ regarding mental health discourse, the word burnout began making its way into casual conversation. Even now, in a world that has – for better or worse – begun to open back up, it’s not uncommon to hear a colleague remark, “I’m so burned out,” or “the burnout is getting to me.”
In its ICD-11 compendium, the World Health Organization defines burnout as a syndrome caused by unsuccessful management of workplace stress, characterized by symptoms including “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.” (Source: World Health Organization. [28 May 2019]. Burn-out an “Occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases. World Health Organization)
The fact is, stress-induced professional burnout is an unfortunately common phenomenon among much of the workforce, regardless of how passionate people may be about their careers. Ignoring it or claiming that it’s the sort of thing only lazy or unmotivated people experience will not make it go away. It’s up to both individuals and companies to find ways to manage stress and head burnout off at the pass.
In this article, KBDN presents some of the experiences and advice provided by surveyed industry professionals.
As they say, the first step to finding a solution is recognizing the problem. Meredith Weiss, owner of Commack, NY-based Merri Interiors, has a definitive way of recognizing the first whispers of burnout: “When I get to the point where it feels like work, I know I need a break,” she says.
For Ellen Crystal-Gee, a designer at Urbana Kitchens in Victoria, BC, the symptoms of burnout are more physical. “Burnout equals my body seizing up,” she remarks. “The neck, back and shoulders tighten and a feeling of anxiety surfaces. I feel overwhelmed or stressed because I have too many tasks and too little time, then I tend to flail.” She adds that she has a useful personal checklist for self-evaluation:
Is this a real problem or is my imagination getting away on me?
- Can I make a list and rank what needs to be accomplished?
- Can I delegate?
- Is this a case of being overtired, having poor posture or back working conditions – what can I do to improve this?
- Do I need to take a day and just decompress?
Molly McCabe, owner of Bainbridge Island, WA firm A Kitchen That Works, notes that her burnout symptoms often manifest as “reduced focus, lack of desire to go to work in the morning and reduced patience for self-absorbed homeowners and subcontractors.” She emphasizes that her level of patience with her clients is a particularly reliable marker for understanding her own mental state.
“My trigger for recognizing burnout is when the minutia of life starts to irritate me,” adds Judith Neary, CMKBD, owner of Roadside Attraction Design Studio in Vashon, WA.
Cristina Lehman, owner of C.LehmanHome in Pleasant Hill, CA, says, “I can recognize this when I have a feeling of dread regarding to having to work on a project.”
A moment to breathe
Once the telltale signs of oncoming burnout appear, then what? While there’s no easy answer, the aforementioned pros do have their own techniques to prevent the feelings of stress from ballooning out of control.
“[I] start by cleaning up my desk and clutter around the house (I work from home) and making sure I have a clean space. This gets the visual clutter out of my brain and helps me focus on the task at hand,” states Lehman. “I also like to take a break and read a home design book or magazine, which gets me inspired.” She also notes the importance of fresh air and moderate exercise in resetting her stress levels.
Once she has evaluated her mental health based on her handy checklist, Crystal-Gee leans into self-care at a slow pace as a priority, “like dog walks, kayaking and gardening. Fresh air of any kind really is a critical aspect of being balanced. Gentle yoga, reading, massage, naps, quietness and peacefulness – even just in my living room – anything that is grounding and unhurried,” she remarks.
Crystal-Gee adds that her rich spiritual life is also critically important to her wellbeing, as is the opportunity to find common ground in friends and colleagues. “I also chat with others in my firm or occupation to assess whether this is just my problem or a wider condition in the industry,” she reports. “I look for opportunities to help and encourage others. When I’m helping others, I think less about the complicated installations I’m trying to solve. Sometimes the solutions come when I help others or free my mind from my own challenges.”
Weiss also notes the importance of teamwork. “I try to get through each day and accomplish as many tasks as possible with the help of my intern, as well as my assistant. When all three of us are working together, we get so much done… That type of energy in the studio is fun for me,” she emphasizes.
Neary has a more vigorous method of sweating out the stress. “The way I maintain mental health is to go and clean the horse barn. It’s very meditative to shovel!”
Another general recommendation is to establish clear boundaries between work time and rest time and never letting the two overlap. This provides a much-needed sense of structure, as well as a mental ‘box’ to put work in at the end of the day. Doing this allows for taking full advantage of rest time and starting work time refreshed and energized.
If self-authored strategies no longer seem effective, seeking professional guidance or therapy is a very real option. Sometimes just having a no-pressure hour to reevaluate and re-strategize – or even just vent – is well worth the time in terms of the emotional return.
There is, of course, no easy solution for the issue of workplace burnout, but practicing self-awareness and self-care is an excellent place to start. ▪