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Work Boundaries and Pace: 5 tips to avoid burnout

In a recent Forbes article, contributor and host of the ‘FRIED: The Burnout Podcast’ Caitlin Donavan summed up the lifestyle paradox and tensions of lockdown, saying: “For a lot of us, quarantine means less work and therefore more time to rest, more time to realize how capable our kids are of actually doing things on their own, and more time for new boundaries. But for the burnt-out brain, this current situation is like doubling down on your already scarce resources.”

There is no escaping the reality that work and home lives, have blurred together in uneven symmetry during the Covid-19 global pandemic. Adjustments in literally every aspect of human existence (breathing included) have had to be made, as part of preventative measures for the spread of the frighteningly swift Corona virus strain.

Since the pandemics lockdown has commenced – and people were pushed to adapt to a new way of working – I have received a, frankly, staggering amount of communication from working people faced with boundary issues concerning their work parameters while working from home. Their seniors (managers, bosses, and the like) are contacting them, beyond the usual operating hours which they have maintained thus far, to get them to work or engage in work communication. I have seen friends working 7 days a week for companies, when their previous times were regular work weeks. This extended way of working, is occurring without renegotiating the terms of lockdown hours – with compromises made, that work for the company and the individual. ‘Burnout syndrome’ is not an unexpected result of straining conditions like these.

The World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledges burnout as an official medical diagnosis, with a description that reads: “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Caitlin Donavan, also a life coach who is keeping entrepreneurial women from burning out, deduces that these stressful and unfamiliar conditions the pandemic has pushed us into “translate into a simple fact: When you’re already fried crispy, your ability to handle new stresses is diminished, and therefore new stress will feel more overwhelming to you than it does to the average healthy-brained person, no matter your actual circumstance.” Urgency in business, is obviously specific to the terms you and your company set – regardless of industry. For people working a regular 9-5 job, weekend work and after-5pm work emails and calls, are a strain – the person having to shift mindsets just after winding down, which leads to compound strain in the long-term. People need healthy brains to function optimally.

Did you know that forgetfulness can be a sign of burnout and stress?

Christina Maslach, Ph. D., is a burnout researcher, who’s research (2016) with Michael P. Leiter, has refined burnout symptoms to three main categorizations: Physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and lack of feeling impactful or accomplished. Mothers, businesswomen, and so many workers around the world, very rarely take stock of the complex pressures and feelings they are going through. Maslach’s categories are useful ways to identify, acknowledge, and work through your stress, before you burn out. Times Now News writer Anushree Gupta, writes about the perils of not paying attention to signs that you need to work on maintaining good health. She says that based on medical literature, “when the mind is constantly processing thoughts and subsequent feelings due to them, you use your physical energy to do so. The more stressful the thoughts, the more physical energy you use. Prolonged stress can thus lead to burnout, and your forgetfulness may actually be a sign of prolonged stress or a pending burnout.”

The build-up of strain also manifests with the lack of support most entrepreneurs have, when it comes to advice, guidance, and motivation, to navigate these churning waters. Entrepreneur Louis J Schoeman, advises people to “connect with other entrepreneurs or old work friends that can give you sound advice and direction and maybe even some practical help.” While there is serious work that needs to go into creating substantial support for entrepreneurs facing burnout, and curated spaces and databases for further connection, tapping into your known associates is not a bad idea.

So, I have decided that there are a few tips I need to encourage everybody working during lockdown, to take, which concern work boundaries and preventing burnout:

  1.  If you aren’t in the business of billing hours, turn off after-hours!

Business magnate Sir Richard Branson, once advised: “Ditch the guilt you might feel about being away from work or not available”, after work hours.
Technology has been celebrated for bringing the global community together, but the two-edged sword is that it brings people together at all hours too.
If you have set times of work, and your “down time” is not being respected afterhours, then turn off. Do not respond to work texts, calls, and emails – unless labelled urgent.
Turn off your technology after work, if you are able to. There is peace to being unplugged.
Should a client be contacting you at night, then oblige them with a follow-up with an email or text message, letting them know when it is appropriate to contact you.

2. Pace yourself.
I cannot stress enough the need to not go full-steam ahead, if your work is more a marathon. When you get your task or project brief: observe the deadlines, necessary skills, tools, and labour, and then map out realistic time frames which do not broach into your afterhours. Do not forget to take breaks – it’s not just to eat; but taking a step back and then returning to your work a while later, refreshes your brain and body.
Pacing yourself also means you have energy to spare for your family (and self) after the work goal for the day, is done.

3. Know what you are capable of and ask when you need clarity, or help.
No one wants to be set up for failure, but there are many people working right now, who are given tasks beyond the scope of their abilities or job, and it has such a detrimental ripple effect (personally and professionally), that you need to be aware of this phenomena.
It sometimes leads people to rise to the challenge admirably, but it has also led people to doubt themselves and their abilities, as they spread themselves thin trying to learn something different to what they know, and also execute the main task in time.
It is fair to both yourself and the company, to be self-aware enough to vocalize your feelings of being ill-prepared. Value yourself enough to request training, or ask for help from your bosses. This is an act of strength and truth professionally, and has the benefit of perhaps leading to you getting upskilled -which is more tools in your professional toolkit.

4. Be honest.
There is no shame in needing time to deal with stress or strain – or prioritizing the healthy stability of your personal relationships.
Burnout can often be so bad, that it has lasting health implications for people and their loved ones by extension – also serving to compromise the energy and tenacity you may have had for your work, when you first started working.

New York Times bestselling author and Senior Contributor at Forbes, Mark Murphy, says that the problem for businesses “is that optimistic employees are 103% more inspired to give their best effort at work. And if employees aren’t giving their best effort, most companies are going to struggle.”

Taking time for yourself, wont ever really be convenient for a company; However, compromise goes a long way in accommodating the wants and needs of those involved.

5. You need to hang on to your outlets for dear life!
If you believe that your work will never feel fun and energizing, and every other experience that makes you happy, then catalogue your outlets and hang on to them.

Most people have habits after work, which aid in winding down for the day. My friend loves black tea and YouTube conspiracy videos, while my sister plays fun games with her kids; and I like watching the sun set with the ones I love. If taking a hot shower, or licking a spoon of Nutella and then sleeping is your thing, then savour those moments in full awareness. The calm and precious moments can become the reference points to give you momentary peace, when work becomes overwhelming.

As a professional tip for business operations during this time, also remember: if time is a serious concern for you, your firmest foundation for renegotiating the time strain, begins with the contract you signed.

You need to double-check what your agreed-upon working hours are, as well as the scope of your job. These two things are a grounding point of reference for yourself, and the company. If the company policies you agreed to, as well as the contract Terms & Conditions, factors in discretionary alterations to company operations due to circumstances such as the ones we are currently in, then you are going to need to communicate your need for clarity regarding exactly how operations are working during the pandemic, exactly how your work hours have been calculated daily in conjunction with your job specs, as well as gaining clarity about the estimated conclusion of these discretionary changes in company operations.

One of the greatest pieces of advice on burnout, from someone so many look to as the pinnacle of entrepreneurship, Sir Richard Branson says: “You can never be certain what tomorrow will throw at you and an entrepreneur needs to be flexible and have the ability to adapt”, so adapt before you burn out!

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