Fatigue and burnout: A few tips to guide you through the fog

Do you feel tired? Stressed? Don’t have the energy you used to?

Don’t worry. This isn’t a pharmaceutical ad, but I do have a prescription that can help.

If you’re like me, you’ve been dealing with two very real conditions in the last 18 months or so: fatigue and burnout. And—no surprise—it’s all connected to the pandemic.

The American Medical Association has acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic and all the changes it has brought along have caused us to feel increasingly isolated—and it’s taking a toll on our mental health. “Even if you’re getting eight hours [of sleep], you just feel like you’re dragging through the day and it’s hard to find the pearls in the mud,” Dr. Carl Lambert told the AMA.

As I’ve talked with friends, colleagues and clients in the last few months, I’ve been gathering up some of the best bits of advice for navigating this fog we find ourselves in. And I’m here to share a few of those pearls of wisdom with you.

Before we dig in, though, it’s important to remember how we got to this point.

The way I see it is we’ve been through two segments of the pandemic now. At first, we were suddenly thrust into a new world of working from home (WFH). Some folks had been working remotely for years and knew what to do; others were learning new technology and habits for the first time.

This was a period of transition—and many people actually found that they were highly productive from home. No more distractions or interruptions. Long commutes were gone. Work/life balance finally became, well, balanced.

But as weeks turned into months, we entered the second segment of what I like to call the “new normal.” WFH routines and habits developed, and we found our schedules getting tighter. More meetings. More tasks. More emails. More, more, more.

It began to feel like we were being squeezed like an orange for every ounce of our time. If that sounds familiar, then you understand this feeling of exhaustion.

That’s why I’d like to share a few tips to help you and your organization establish some guidelines to avoid burnout and create a more sustainable work environment.

1. Set your own ground rules

Remember the safety instructions when flying? “If the cabin loses pressure, put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.”

Start with yourself by setting some ground rules for work tasks and meetings. You need to be in command of your own schedule or others will take control of it.

Bake in time on your schedule for “work time” and even “think time.” Block out chunks of your calendar during the week so you can accomplish the tasks you need to complete. If not, when you reach the end of a day packed with meetings, you’ll still have work that needs to be done. This is where the job bleeds into your personal life.

Speaking of work tasks, establish some rules regarding turnaround times and expected deadlines. In today’s world of instant, on-demand everything, we’ve been conditioned to want things immediately. If you constantly drop everything to deliver on “need it now” tasks, you’ll quickly find yourself drowning.

Set clear, reasonable expectations ahead of time with the groups you interact with on how long it will take to complete a task. “Emergencies” will happen from time to time, but not everything needs to be treated as an emergency.

2. Master your work-life blend

With WFH, work and life have truly blended together like never before. But you need to be the master of this blend.

First, establish a clear workspace in your home. If you have a spare room or home office, use that space. It helps to have a mental separation between “going to work” and “leaving work.”

Also, it’s OK to bake in time to do some laundry, squeeze in a workout at the gym—heck, even go to lunch with a friend. These are natural, healthy behaviors, and you shouldn’t feel guilty every time you step away from your computer.

Taking these small breaks throughout the day helps you rejuvenate, but you have to be intentional about it. Make triggers for yourself like “after several back-to-back meetings, I’ll take a short walk around the house or to the kitchen and back.”

Do what works for you, but make sure you do something.

3. Streamline your meetings

You’ve probably found that meetings are where most of your lost time goes. It’s only natural that we all want to chat and have some human interaction, right? But when we find our days filled with back-to-back-to-back meetings, there isn’t even time to grab lunch.

I’ve found it helpful to schedule slightly shorter meetings. Turn a 60-minute meeting into 45. Make 30 minutes become 20. This leaves time for being a human—snacks, bathroom breaks, etc.—and prevents a constant cycle of showing up late to meetings because the previous one ran over.

Meetings are also most effective when you put some guardrails on them. Here are a few tips:

  • The meeting host should outline a clear agenda for everyone
  • Meeting participants should come prepared for the discussion
  • The host must also monitor the time and keep the meeting on topic
  • The final 5 minutes should be reserved for recap and action items

This will help everyone stay focused and make meetings feel more productive for everyone.

4. Limit available work hours

This overlaps a bit with the first point about ground rules, but there’s a unique aspect here.

As companies shift to permanent remote work, this opens opportunities to find employees all across the nation. No longer are they limited to building a team in a particular city or region.

This is great for bringing in the best people, but it creates a new challenge of working across four time zones (or even more if you’ve gone international). If someone on the East Coast schedules a meeting for 10 a.m., that’s 7 a.m. on the West Coast. Likewise, a 3 p.m. meeting out West is a 5 p.m. start in the Central time zone.

Be respectful of everyone’s schedules by limiting the range of meeting times when collaborating across time zones. These meeting times should begin no sooner than 11 a.m. ET (8 a.m. PT) and end no later than 5 p.m. ET (2 p.m. PT). I admit, we violate this often—especially during this crazy supply chain crisis. But if you don’t at least start out trying to set some time limits, you will guarantee no limits.

Also, be respectful when sending emails or asking questions outside of those hours. We’re “always on” while working from home, and people generally aim to please by responding right away.

We’ve gotten a very positive response in our office from the idea of “shutting it down” at a certain time of day.

5. Meet-up in person

Finally, for those teammates who are in the same location, make sure to get together in person. It’s so important to see each other outside of Zoom or Teams calls, but this can easily fall off your radar.

Make the intentional effort to set regular meetups. Grab coffee together once a week. Have your monthly team meeting in the office. Go out to lunch.

Find what works best for your team—and stick to it. We can’t forget to connect and humanize with one another.

Working from home during the pandemic has brought a new set of challenges for all of us. I hope these tips help as we all get through this together.

Shared Content, The Nonprofit Alliance

Author: Max Bunch 

With an MBA and 33 years of nonprofit fundraising and marketing expertise, Max Bunch provides RKD Group with invaluable insights from a diverse background. In his role of Executive Vice President, Max has served a number of leading nonprofit organizations, including food banks, animal welfare, hospitals, faith-based, relief and development, cancer care, rescue missions, veteran affairs, healthcare, and human services.

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