Working from Home: From Burnout to Balance

Burned-Matches
By Shuangqi “Joy” Wang

I never expected to work from home full-time this early in my career. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought enormous changes to our daily lives, and working from home is now my daily routine. While the “WFH” experience has been mostly positive, there have been challenges that allowed me to better understand myself, my work, and the critical link between productivity and wellness. 

My story of working from home begins with a lesson about burnout. 

I am a midlevel associate in a global law firm’s regional office. Internationally, my firm has thousands of lawyers and legal staff, but in the Minneapolis office, there are only 11 attorneys—partners, counsels, senior associates, and me. 

At the beginning of 2020, I was in the middle of my third year at the firm, still learning to do a lot of substantive legal work but also starting to take on more projects and responsibilities. I was constantly stressed and overwhelmed by the number of projects and deadlines on my plate, and I struggled with managing my time and the increased workload. Generally, I find the key to reducing stress is to complete the project that is causing the most significant stress for me. I kept thinking that, in order to feel less overwhelmed, I should spend more time focusing on work and “getting things done.”


Humans aren’t designed to be nonstop work machines that operate at 100% efficiency and productivity. Or maybe just not in the middle of a worldwide pandemic where anxiety is already amplified by the uncertainty of the virus.

In March, after COVID-19 proliferated in the U.S., the leaders of my office quickly decided to close the office and required most employees to work from home unless instructed otherwise. I was nervous about COVID-19 and concerned about the situation in China, where my parents and other family members reside, but I was glad to have an opportunity to work from home for more than just a day or two. Since I was looking for more time to focus on projects, I thought working from home would allow me to control my time and schedule more effectively so that I would have fewer distractions and more time for billable work. I set a goal to reduce stress by being as productive as possible. 

What I did not understand at that time is the importance of balance, and how harmful it can be when life is exclusively about work. Without going to the office or meeting friends for lunch or dinner or coffee, I had a lot more time for myself, and I decided to devote all of that time to my job. Between the middle of March and the end of May, my life was 90 percent work. Every weekday, I started working immediately after waking up, and worked until I had to sleep. I spent limited time socializing, and I certainly did not exercise. The only breaks I took were for food and hygiene. On the weekends, although I would have virtual social activities with family and friends, I would consciously limit the time I spent on those activities to maximize time for additional work. In retrospect, it seems inconceivable that I was so determined to work as much as possible and had made little or no time for myself. But in the moment, I was convinced that once I “cleaned up” the projects on my plate, I would feel more in control, more efficient, and less overwhelmed with work going forward.

Working constantly was exhausting, but I persisted through March and April. I thought that the exhaustion was only temporary and that I would soon feel more at ease with my job. However, contrary to what I hoped for, devoting more time to work did not make my workload more manageable nor did it make me less stressed. I ran into the opposite. Without making an effort to protect my nonwork time, I ended up with more work than I could handle, became more overwhelmed than before, and felt even more out of control. 

When May came, I began to break down. I cried multiple times a day when I was working. I was constantly anxious about either not being able to complete assignments (and consequently botch a work project) or not being able to sleep enough (and thus negatively affect my physical and mental health). I was physically weak and tired. I felt helpless, hopeless, and alone emotionally. I could not appreciate my job; instead, I felt stuck in a pit not knowing how to get out.

I was burned out. Mayo Clinic defines burnout as “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”1 Psychology Today describes it as “a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.”2 According to the World Health Organization3:

Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

People who experience burnout symptoms need to act immediately and make changes in their work and lifestyles. Common recommendations include taking time away from work, focusing on self-care, having social interactions, exercising, and getting enough sleep. Thinking back about the time that I used to spend on dressing up for work, commuting to the office, taking bathroom breaks, talking with coworkers when I ran into them, or stepping out of the office to buy lunch, I realized that while all that time prevented me from billing two more hours every day, it was also built-in breaks that kept me from working nonstop and burning out. Before the pandemic, I thought those breaks were wasted time that stopped me from achieving maximum efficiency and productivity—how wrong I was! 


People who experience burnout symptoms need to act immediately and make changes in their work and lifestyles. Common recommendations include taking time away from work, focusing on self-care, having social interactions, exercising, and getting enough sleep. 



Thanks to the advice and encouragement of those closest to me, I gathered up some courage and engaged in honest conversations with partners at my firm. I was candid about the difficulties I experienced with work and the negative effects on my mental, emotional, and physical health. To my huge relief, both partners responded extremely well to what I shared and were incredibly supportive, caring, and understanding. They did not realize how much I was struggling and were glad that I raised the issue. They encouraged me to talk to them sooner if, in the future, I feel overwhelmed again. I felt extremely fortunate, thankful, and appreciated as part of the team.

Although it took another six months and additional support for me to recover from burning out, I appreciate what the experience has taught me about myself, my job, and working and being productive in general. I underestimated the importance of breaks and balance, and I have become more mindful of, and thankful for, the value that every additional step or small distraction brings me. 

After discovering that finishing project after project is not the solution to work stress, I have been actively researching, thinking about, strategizing, and testing different productivity tools, and trying different time management strategies, to find a work system that is the most suitable and sustainable for me. It is a trial-and-error process, but at least I know now that compromising break time is not the answer. 

With a newfound appreciation for distractions and conscious efforts to keep work from encroaching on my wellness, I consider myself thriving with WFH. I am thankful for the additional hour of sleep every day due to time saved from dressing up and commuting, and I appreciate all the hours when I can work in my pajamas and not be “on” for professional social interactions. I cherish the walk I take downstairs to check my mail, and I enjoy doing a quick yoga exercise when I have 10 minutes. In particular, I enjoy the opportunities to make a fresh, healthy meal for lunch when I don’t have urgent projects—I feel so spoiled!

During the past several months, my firm proactively sent out surveys assessing firm members’ interest in working from home long-term after the pandemic. According to the survey results, I am not alone in appreciating the opportunity to work from home. Anecdotally, people shared increased happiness with having additional time for family and self. Although there are concerns about the lack of face-to-face training, mentoring, and communication opportunities, I am optimistic that firm leadership may be willing to offer regular WFH opportunities after the pandemic and, ultimately, may become more open to other flexible work arrangements as well. 

It is difficult to predict when the pandemic will end and when our lives will be back to “normal.” But even after the pandemic passes, I anticipate that our lives will never be the same again, as all of us will likely have developed new habits, acquired new skills, adapted to a new working/living situation, and/or gained new understanding of ourselves and maybe also of others. Many of us will excitedly welcome back some old pastimes such as dining out, going to theaters, visiting museums. Some of us will also be reluctant in giving up new habits. For me, that may be working in pajamas all day. 

Before that day comes, I hope all of us can use the current opportunity to experiment with a different working style or schedule, to learn what works and what does not work for our health, wellness, and productivity, and to better understand ourselves in ways that we were unable to before. By the time we return to our “old” way of living, I hope we will all have new appreciation for the journey we have all been on in an unusual year.


Shaungqi-Joy-WangAn intellectual property attorney at Norton Rose Fulbright’s Minneapolis office, Shuangqi “Joy” Wang helps clients select, register, maintain and protect trademarks and copyrights around the world. Before joining Norton Rose Fulbright, she clerked for the Hon. Justice Natalie E. Hudson on the Minnesota Supreme Court and graduated from the University of Minnesota with a joint degree in law and public health. The author would like to give special thanks to Akira Cespedes Perez for additional editorial feedback and advice.  


 

Notes

 1 “Job burnout: How to spot it and take action,” Adult Health, Healthy Lifestyle, Mayo Clinic, available at https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/burnout/art-20046642 (last visited January 14, 2021). 

2 “Burnout,” Psychology Today, available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/burnout (last visited January 14, 2021). 

3 “Burn-out an ‘occupational phenomenon’: International Classification of Diseases,” World Health Organization, May 28, 2019, available at https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases (last visited January 14, 2021).