It’s burnout as WFH blurs lines between personal, professional lives

'Burnout' is classified as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Work from home scenarios. Photo:

The last one year has been unprecedented due to the global pandemic that has brought the world to a standstill and made people introspect. The privilege of ‘work from home’ (WFH) for millions of working professionals across the world seemed like a welcome change but soon made one feel like one of those Indian television serials with no end and stopped making sense. Even though we were spared the trials of commuting to work, working from home made us grapple with some extraordinary situations.

There was a time when the thought of working from the comfort of our homes seemed like a good idea because it allowed us to work at our own pace and we didn’t have to worry about dressing up in formal attire. Fast forward to today, we are missing out on the coffee breaks and water cooler discussions at work, chance hallway encounters (minus the office politics and forceful small talk), and the simple joy of getting ready for work, which seemed frivolous or mundane back then.

Another pitfall of no distinction between work space and home is that we are perennially available and ‘online’ on work/business messenger apps, which makes working hours limitless and while we try to multitask and manage both work deadlines along with household chores, the lines between personal and professional life get blurred.

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In this hyperconnected world, even if you switch off your laptops, you still have access to work emails on your phone, which makes it harder to not immediately respond to an ‘urgent’ query from a co-worker, who maybe working out of a totally different time zone. Though we are caught in the web of endless video calls and emails, somewhere at the back of our minds we are thinking about fulfilling domestic responsibilities and completing household chores such as doing laundry and preparing meals.

Most of us who navigate through the fog of uncertainty, experience a series of emotions, ranging from anxiety to feeling overwhelmed, which results in burnout.

‘Burnout’, which was previously defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a “state of vital exhaustion,” is now classified as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Sugandha Deva, a working professional said, “At first I spent my WFH with my flatmate in Bangalore so I could manage my personal time after work for self care and creativity but as the lockdown kept extending I had to relocate to my family in Delhi to support them. That’s when the personal and professional lines started to blur – managing my work while trying to sync and adjust with my mother’s office routine, my sister’s online classes and my granddad’s meal schedules. The days just seem to pass multitasking; cooking  while taking calls, managing household chores while analysing reports, is the new normal! Also, since I haven’t lived with my family for over a decade, the current WFH is sort of taken for granted and there are no lines between work and personal life now.”

WFH is also fraught with funny or embarrassing moments, like a toddler screaming in the background, ring of a doorbell, dog barking over your Zoom meetings, which has made us reach for the mute button at lightening speed and phrases such as, “Can you hear me?” and “You are on mute!” have become synonymous with working from the confines of our home. While attending meetings in pyjamas has become the norm, patchy internet connections and noisy neighbours are other reasons for annoyance in an already imperfect work space.

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With lunch breaks getting shorter, working hours seeming to get longer and no human interaction with colleagues, over the last several months, we feel as though we are losing connection with our team members, despite being virtually connected throughout the day.

We think about work even when we have logged off our systems and “switching off” is something we are consciously trying to do. It was easier to leave your office desk/cubicle and not fret over the presentation or email you need to send until you returned to work the next day. Like one of my co-workers put it aptly, “It’s difficult to tell when the work day ends and when your personal life begins.”

And these thoughts or experiences are not an exaggeration. According to researchers at Atlassian, a developer of workplace software, who first aggregated data from January-February, 2020, when employees were generally working from corporate offices and then compared that to data from April 2020-May 2020, “at which point most knowledge workers worldwide were working from home. In some countries (Israel and India, for example) the differences are more pronounced. In others, like Korea, the impact is hardly noticeable. But the difference is irrefutably real.”

Shweta Rao, a senior copywriter, who shifted to Bangalore in the midst of a pandemic, says, “I moved countries during the lockdown and finding work during those circumstances have been pretty difficult. There were no new jobs and companies were struggling to adjust to the new normal in a bad economy. So, when I found a job, I gave it my everything as I knew things were bleak out there. I joined a company remotely and worked for over 8 months. Nothing I did felt enough so I’d be sitting by the computer till 1am and still not be done for the day.”

Even those who are still employed and are not worried about finding a job, have at some point worried over the possibility of being laid off, especially if their roles are client-facing.

Another Atlassian survey, involving thousands of workers, also provides more evidence in this context. It stated, “Managers are also worried that the outputs of their work are invisible and may not be valued by the organization. In other words, plenty of people are worried about job security. In fact, anyone whose role is primarily relationship-based, such as account managers or salespeople, is worried about the intangibility of their work.”

Since most companies have not announced dates for returning to offices and are coming up with innovative ways to welcome employees back to workspaces, taking care of safety guidelines, we still have a few more months to go before we get back to the grind. Until then, let’s hold back that urge to reply to that email instantly, start doing things we used to enjoy (like reading or dancing) back when you used to have a life outside work and moved around a lot.