I’ve been thinking a lot about burnout lately.
If it was a common enough work malady pre-pandemic, it’s almost reached epidemic proportions. In a recent survey by FlexJobs and Mental Health America, 75% of respondents say they’ve experienced burnout at work, with 40% reporting they’ve felt it specifically during the pandemic.
In an attempt to counter this increasing rise in work-related stress, which manifests as exhaustion, weariness and decreased efficiency, companies have started to woo employees to use their pandemic-accrued days off. Google is offering bonus vacation days for early bookers, while dating app Bumble shut down its offices worldwide for one week to fight “collective burnout.” PricewaterhouseCoopers is even offering cash to workers to go play.
I’m one of the 37% of employees surveys show are working longer hours than ever before. The truth is that the flip and frustrating side of flex work is that you’re never really off the job. It’s hard to be OOO when your bedroom doubles as your workspace, gym, playroom and relaxation zone.
The luxury of being homebound, even in tight quarters, meant I could easily drop off and pick up my son from daycare. But corona-induced elasticity also meant my workdays stretched into nights. Without the natural punctuation between work and play, too many working moms like me are feeling like all-night transit. The MTA has been on my mind a lot lately, as my 3-year-old son has committed the subway map and all its stops to memory. When my partner whisked him away for a day of quality bonding (and gave me some much-needed alone time), they went on subway adventures to nowhere.
I stayed exactly where they left me, in our cozy East Village apartment. I was determined to use my eight hours of “freedom” to unplug and recharge. Because even though I know stolen moments throughout the day help me power up, I’ve been terrible at taking them lately. And as a not too long-ago single woman in Manhattan, I miss being alone.
First, I walked away from my phone and computer. Not an easy task, but I was guarding against the inevitable work seepage. Powering down led me to my bookshelf. I’ve been staring at Jenny Lawson’s Broken (in the best possible way) for months now. I finally cracked it open and marveled at her ability to treat the subject of depression with equal measure hilarity and heartbreak. I laughed out loud, which is just what the doctor ordered. It’s no secret that laughter relieves stress and acts as a pain reliever, tension-soother and even an immune-boosting neuropeptide-releaser. As far as self-care goes, I marked this down as a win.
Then it was a walk around my beloved neighborhood. Not at kiddie pace, stopping to inspect every creepy crawler and distribute water and snacks like a vending machine. I walked at my pace, which turns out to have lots of variables. It made me pay attention to the importance that pacing plays in juggling work-life balance, and I made a pinky promise to myself to try to remember that when the frenzy set back in.
As night fell, I ended up in my kitchen whipping up a batch of lemon spaghetti inspired by a favorite haunt. In its slow and indulgent form, cooking is therapeutic. No batch cooking tonight.
I made time to exercise at home as I’ve done since my gym closed and began offering online classes, keeping our community intact. I won’t go back because I like having extra minutes and money to use in other ways. (Not to mention my own shower.)
I will, however, be heading back to the office, as will our staff, because we want to return to our together centric, brainstorming office. Onsite collaboration breeds creativity. We are giving people time to vaccinate, updating our air filtration systems and adapting our space to help people keep distance. By September, remote work will be the exception rather than the rule.
We consider being together in the same room as a bonus and a treat. It will help stop the work/life bleed and keep work in the office where it belongs.
I know there will be crossover and unwanted interruptions. I know I will have to guard against the useless guilt that seeps in when practicing self-care. But we women can’t tend to the office or family if we are depleted. You have to put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others.
Unplugging for the day brought more vigor and productivity when I returned to my bedroom office to re-engage with work, which was still exactly where I left it. The world didn’t crumble without my input.
And neither did my family. As I scrolled through the happy photos my guys sent throughout the day, I realized we were, though apart, together on the same journey: a trip on home turf to nowhere to reignite inspiration.
Eva McCloskey is managing director of the Academy of Interactive & Visual Arts.