July 28, 2021

Navigating burnout in lockdown and beyond

Marie Krebs

TL;DR

Burnout is something that most people will experience in their working lives. But working from home during a pandemic has lit the match for many, all at once. Remote work carries fresh triggers and pitfalls for falling into a burnout that is hard to climb out of. 

As we all navigate this work from home experiment, it’s important we set work-life boundaries, follow steps to prevent burnout and know what to do if we do feel the burn.

This guide is something we shared internally at Learnerbly but are reappropriating it into a blog post for you. Think of it as a follow up to this article about emotional resilience. We think these can help you support yourself and others around you.

So, let’s get into it. 

According to Basecamp's book Remote and more (the likes of CultureGene founder and Culture expert Bretton Putter), the highest risk of going full remote is not a Netflix overdose but burnout.

So, what is it? How can we spot it in ourselves and others? And more importantly, how can we translate 'it's not a sprint, it's a marathon' into how we structure and balance our lives. Remotely.

All great questions. All with actionable answers. 

First, let’s look at why remote work harbours a greater likelihood of burnout.

It is harder to feel heard in a virtual environment. 

Sometimes we don't ask for help soon enough because we feel like everyone has their own stuff to do and our stuff is on us culminating in the attitude that, "we shouldn't have to ask for help". In an office, it's easier to see when people look frustrated, feel down or like they could use a cuppa, which makes it easier to bring people in for support without a taste of impostor syndrome.

What I mean by this, is that you won't be less of anything if you ask for help. You'll still be skillful and brilliant, your achievements will still be yours, you'll still be strong and qualified and not perfect and that's okay because you don't have to be. It's okay to have lows, it's okay if it all gets too much sometimes, especially when you want to do so many things so well.

It is harder to rely on others to set healthy boundaries. 

No one can spot you looking tired on the sofa, adopting bad habits, letting good ones slip or drinking more coffee than the human body should have to tolerate.

Burnout happens because your boundaries are not set in a way that's beneficial to you. Don't put yourself second, put yourself first like you do with everyone else or you will likely sacrifice your energy until there's nothing left — that's what burnout feels like.

What can we do to combat burnout?

It starts with knowing you can be vocal and share your concerns or ask for help if needed. Once you have the space to reflect on what works well and what could work better, you can take the steps to make the changes conducive to being your best self at work. So, how do you get there?

1. Foster psychological safety

Within Learnerbly, we proactively try to foster an environment where everyone is comfortable discussing those topics, asking for help and taking the steps to do great at all levels, productivity yes, but staff wellbeing too.

What this means for our people is that if they’re not sure about sharing information upwards for whatever reason, they can remember this: we're proactively trying to deconstruct the barriers and build trust so you can share your suggestions, thoughts and feedback. Radical candour is a company value or ours for a reason. It can feel scary to share upwards information and that's normal too, but it’s important and is a fear worth overcoming.

2. Keep the conversation going

Another of our values is ‘be your authentic self’ and the definition is having the opportunity to be your best self at work. We need to embed this as a company through tangible rituals and while this may not be your own company value it is certainly one you can borrow from. One of the ways we embed it is through Wellbeing Wednesdays, a day free from internal Zoom meetings where every morning kicks off with a wellbeing tip. To keep the conversation going, we also have Employee Guide Notion pages around wellbeing and expert workshops like one from Spill conducted around burnout.

What this means for you is that your experience is valuable. Addressing topics helps you reach out for help because it normalises a situation in a constructive way (not as in, this is normal just get on with it, the other normal! The one that's more like, it's okay to feel bad sometimes. The most important part is that it doesn't stay that way so you can keep growing).

3. Over communicate

Echoing ‘it is harder to feel heard in a virtual environment’, we all need to proactively, consciously and clearly communicate about what we need.

First, identify your needs: On the back of my last therapy session I started checking in on my needs regularly so I can consciously set the boundaries conducive to said needs being met. Simple as it is, it's already had a great positive impact. A good framework to kick off that type of exercise is Maslow's pyramid of needs (below) which you can use to identify different types of needs and which are, or are not, fulfilled.

Then, on the assumption that psychological safety is how you feel about your environment, your own worst enemy is probably the assumptions preventing you from being vocal. Try to identify what can be done to change this going forward.

4. Kindness and perspective

Again, might be too much information but I used to put my own needs second based on absolutely nothing. Be kind to yourself as you would your best mate, mate. Even go so far as to picture what you would say to your friend, partner or anyone you love if they were the one going through this stress, and then follow your own advice. Putting a familiar situation through a new perspective can be powerful, and also you deserve the best so do away with the double standards.

5. As a company, be a collaborative and supportive bunch

Psychological safety is nothing but the sum of the trust we have in each other, which relies on our dependability, which is supported by structure and clarity. You should consciously channel a collaborative and supportive energy to foster the environment that will help you and others overcome difficulties. Like, idk, anything from a global pandemic to a super challenging new project.

6. Be in control of your time, set your boundaries

It's not only completely okay to say no and set boundaries for yourself, it's necessary, and no one else can do it for you.

For example, you can ensure your work related notifications are set in a way that protects your deep work time and your personal life. That way you're in control of your time and not the other way around. Notifications can become disruptive to prioritisation and dedicating your attention to work but also to yourself.

For Slack you can go to profile > pause notifications > set a notification schedule. 

We can also educate ourselves with learning resources.

How Learnerbly of us.

1. Identifying burnout

The below resources are helpful to educate ourselves, identify burnout signs in others and ourselves, and help us better understand and support each other.

2. The burnout zone

If you're feeling stressed, overwhelmed, aka burnt out, you might need your first action to be actively nothing. And by that, I mean, unplug from work, binge watch a series you like, take a shower and sit in your robe for the rest of the day. Order take-away. You're drained, treat yourself to a hug, your favourite comfort food and a no brain activity.

Then, once you've recharged enough to have a conversation, address the situation as soon as possible with your manager or People person for support. Do not stay in the ‘so long as I don't address this I still have control over it’ denial.

3. Getting outta there

If you feel it's difficult to get out of that zone, you might also want to check out resources on the likes of prioritisation, expectations management, and workload communication.

Why? Because as you can see in the flourish model, burnout can be induced by poor boundaries, lack of awareness, lack of structure, support, or a particularly high volume of work.

The flourish model can be a great framework to base your next steps as well as goal-setting on how to avoid the situation from recurring and to guide a constructive conversation with your managers.


Bottom line, it’s okay to get burnt out every now and then but there are steps we can take to minimise how often and how deeply we feel it. And when it does come around, we can take heart in the fact that there’s a way to turn down the heat.




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