How To Overcome Apathy And Burnout At Work
Because It’s Not “Business As Usual”
Four months after moving to Los Angeles for a new job, the pandemic hit. I turned my kitchen table, still fresh out of its box, into a desk and downloaded an app I’d never heard of: Zoom.
For an entire year, I spent 40+ hours alone each week, diving headfirst into my work. I coped with the pandemic and my loneliness by trying to create content that mattered. The work kept me distracted. It gave me purpose and something to do. If I could just write one more essay, edit one more piece about grief or hope or self-care, maybe that would make a small difference.
Free time and self-care took on new meaning in 2020, and I spent most nights moving from my kitchen table to the couch, a measly five-foot separation. There, I’d scroll social media for hours while watching the news. Then I’d go to bed, wake up, and do it all again.
When the ball dropped in an empty Times Square, my coworkers and I hoped 2021 would see us returning to the office, collaborating once again in our sunny studio. We hoped this for everyone—for the world that had been shut down and confined to apartment walls; for the exhausted frontline workers desperate for respite; for the defeated parents who’d been balancing jobs while nursing babies or teaching their children from home.
Yet, there was no new year, new me (or new us). The flip of a calendar page only offered a fleeting moment of hope, and then a fresh wave of exhaustion hit. My energy and ambition did not return when I received my vaccination or when I stepped back into the office for the first time in 15 months. My brand new planner remained blank as my brain, and while companies worked to adjust expectations and offer additional self-care days, many of us began to feel a new kind of despair.
According to an Indeed survey, more than half of respondents are burned out right now, up 43 percent from the pre-pandemic survey. And this burnout is widespread across generations. Coupled with isolation (or a house full of partners and children), political stress, climate disasters, and continued racial injustice (did I miss anything?), people are struggling to cope with “business as usual.”
Work burnout affects our careers, as well as our lives, health, and overall well-being. But my hope—because, frankly, that is all we can keep clinging to these days—is that the below tips can help with navigating the burnout, or least subside it a bit. With support and self-care, we can get through another workday. Oh, and also a big reality check that says this:
Burnout is normal, especially in a pandemic. You are not alone. And you will get through this.
1. Create Work Boundaries
Working from home has meant creating new boundaries for me. During the earlier days of the pandemic, when there was little else to do but work, it was easy to stay logged on outside of a 9–5 window. But work boundaries can be essential for curbing burnout, especially when your job requires you to stare at a screen all day.
This practice is newer for me (hello, 15 months later), but I’m starting by logging off when it’s time to log off unless a task or project is pressing. As someone who always wants to get “just one more task done,” I’m learning to respect myself and my work hours by shutting everything down at 5 pm, even if that means I didn’t get through my to-do list for that day.
Similarly, I’m creating emotional boundaries by not having frequent work conversations with my partner or friends. Unless I need feedback or want to celebrate an achievement, I’m becoming more cautious about how often I talk about (read: think about) my job. Yes, I love my job, but it is also not my life.
Of course, not everyone has this luxury, especially first responders or frontline workers. But if you have the ability to separate your work from your personal life, start there. I recommend doing something tangible and active to physically experience the transition, like taking a walk as soon as you shut your computer, playing with your kids or partner for a few minutes, or—my personal favorite—grabbing a book to read.
2. Cultivate Relationships With Your Coworkers
In the past year and a half, we have experienced isolation unlike anything before. And while we may not be able to physically be with our coworkers all the time, it can help to have a friend or two in the office. Chances are, you have coworkers looking for deeper relationships too.
Consider initiating a casual get-together (safely and in an outdoor setting) with a few work friends. Even simple social activities can help build community and make your days in the office, virtual or otherwise, feel meaningful.
Even though you’re with colleagues, try to steer the conversation to topics outside of work—if you’re already feeling burned out, talking about work with coworkers will not lessen the burden. Instead, talk about shared interests or—bear with me—weekend plans. Be genuine, and take up a real interest in the people you work with. It’s a sure way to remember that none of us are experiencing the pandemic or working our jobs alone, even in this incredibly tough season.
3. Seek Out New Opportunities
This fall, I’m taking an essay course. For two hours each week, I’ll meet on Zoom with an instructor and a few local writers in my city. Having something new on my plate is helping me to feel excited about writing and editing again. And as I haven’t had the opportunity to expand my creative network during the pandemic, I’m looking forward to seeing fresh faces virtually (though, all the love to my coworkers).
Sometimes we experience burnout when we do the same role for too long or when our days become monotonous and repetitive. When we are challenged and consistently learning new skills though, whether in the workplace or not, we can feel a sense of meaning and maybe find our spark again.
Consider taking a class or implementing a new project that makes you feel more energized, for or outside of your workflow. If there’s too much on your plate, see if you can offload something you no longer enjoy.
4. Practice Self-Care Throughout The Work Day
Feeling disengaged and burned out in our careers can make it more challenging to care for ourselves out of the office. But forgetting to practice self-care during working hours can further perpetuate our negative feelings about our job. Consider asking yourself a few simple but important questions:
Am I drinking water throughout the day? Do I get up to stretch and move my body at least a few times? (Or, if you work a job where you stand or do physical labor: Am I taking a few moments to sit and rest?)
The link between physical wellness and mental wellbeing is inescapable. Our environments also impact our state of mind and can significantly affect how we feel about our workspace, so here’s your excuse to invest in more office plants.
But seriously, try to take care of yourself throughout the day. Set a timer on your phone for breaks if you must—these breathing apps even have push notification features.
Additional practical tips to help subside apathy or burnout include drinking calming beverages rather than caffeine, stepping outside for a few moments throughout the day (or inside if you need a break from the sun), and eating whole foods at the office and at home. Exercising, spending time with others, reading your favorite books, interacting with your pets or children, and playing in nature can also cultivate positive feelings, even during the seasons that your career seems to be overwhelming.
5. Ask For Support
Finally, I hope help is at your disposal. And I hope you work for a company where you can ask for support and get it. I’m grateful to have a team to care for me and our business in seasons of burnout and stress. But if there is one thing I’ve learned in all of this, it’s that I have to ask for help to receive it.
If you feel burned out, consider scheduling a meeting with your supervisor to discuss options for lessening your workload. Or ask about taking additional PTO or using sick leave. Companies are consistently changing and adapting to employee needs in the wake of this pandemic, so it is worth talking to your boss if you’re struggling. If that doesn’t feel like an option, you can also try talking with a coworker to see if they can help take a few things off your plate. They may even need the favor in return at some point.
While I know not everyone has this option, and work is essential to pay our bills and survive, there are many great companies and empathetic bosses in the world (who are also feeling burned out!). Please seek support if it’s available to you.
Burnout is very real right now. It’s real for whether you work full-time or part-time, and it’s real whether your job includes a paycheck or you’re caring for others (littles, loved ones, or otherwise). It’s also real for people searching for jobs and those tired from the bureaucracy of unemployment. If that’s you, your burnout is also valid, and I recommend this piece for tips on caring for your mental health during a job search.
No matter where you are at, there is no shame in admitting that we’re all just doing our best to make it through. Be kind to yourself in this season, and be kind to others. If it feels appropriate, have these conversations as a team and see how you can best support one another as our world continues to shift.
However you’re feeling about your job in this moment, that is valid and okay. We will get through this.
Kayti Christian (she/her) is a Senior Editor at The Good Trade. She has a Master’s in Nonfiction Writing from the University of London and is the creator of Feelings Not Aside, a newsletter for enneagram 4s and other sensitive-identifying people. Outside of writing, she loves hiking, reading memoir, and the Oxford comma.