If you worked from home during the past year (and COVID-19 spared your business or livelihood) there’s a good chance you logged more time on the job than ever before. Research released in February 2021 suggests that remote work increased the average workday by 2.5 hours in the U.S., Canada, Austria, and the U.K.
With blurred lines between work and leisure, heightened fears around job security, and even pandemic-fueled growth in some industries, burnout has reached an all-time high. Making time for yourself and your well-being has never been more important—but it’s not always easy.
To reveal something personal, last October, I was hospitalized with COVID-19. However, there was a sole upside: All those sleepless nights gave me plenty of time to think. I adore my company and the business we’ve built over the last 15 years, but—you may not be surprised to here this—nothing else matters when your health and happiness are on the line. It’s not selfish to focus on yourself; in fact, it’s essential.
Over the course of running my company, my team prioritized sane, steady growth and avoided set teeth-gnashing deadlines. I’ve always tried to unplug during evenings and weekends, and our leadership encourages our 300 employees to do the same. Yet, it’s ever more difficult to avoid overwork. Organizational policies, procedures, and systems should be the first line of defense. Next, you have to advocate for yourself, whether you’re a new employee or the founder of a busy startup. Here are a few steps to get started.
Pause to breathe and ask for help
When you’re drowning in tasks, it can feel like everyone is dragging you underwater. But in most cases, people don’t even know you’re overwhelmed. We need to ask for what we want and need, instead of assuming others can read our minds. “Many times the people around you could help more if you simply asked and spread out the responsibilities,” writes Fast Company contributor Elizabeth Grace Saunders.
In the early days of building my company, I tried to do it all. I was the developer, marketer, HR department, customer support team, and office cleaner. Over time, I learned to let go and share the load. If you’re running on empty, ask yourself who could help you right now. Maybe you can’t hire, but consider what you could delegate or outsource, even if it’s temporarily. From meals to cleaning to bookkeeping to running errands, a wide range of affordable services are now just a few taps away.
Reset your boundaries
Even as some parts of the world are re-opening, our workdays may still have ill-defined edges. For example, I used to start every morning at the gym. I would then arrive at the office feeling energized from caring for my body and mind. Now, the morning slips unmarked into the afternoon. In short, a flexible schedule can quickly envelop your personal time.
If your boundaries are frayed, commit time to reinforce them. Pull out your calendar and examine the week ahead. Make a series of nonnegotiable appointments with yourself, whether that means morning exercise, reading breaks, a mid-afternoon walk, or a hard stop to the day to cook dinner. Saunders says, “If someone suggests an early morning or late-night meeting and it’s negotiable, ask for a time that will work better for your…schedule and self-care routines.”
During a busy week, month, or even a season of life, it’s easy to let your mental and physical wellness slip into the back seat. But this is often when self-care is most important. You won’t thrive under pressure if you’re not healthy and rested. Maybe you can’t train for a triathlon, but you could fit in a 30-minute jog. A silent retreat might be unmanageable, but try setting a timer for 10 minutes of meditation during the workday.
Get serious about recovery
Not working isn’t the same as resting. You can physically step away from your job, but still get consumed by it, say researchers Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan. “We ‘stop’ work sometimes at 5 p.m., but then we spend the night wrestling with solutions to work problems, talking about our work over dinner, and falling asleep thinking about how much work we’ll do tomorrow.”
Recovery builds resilience. It prepares us to weather storms ranging from business and personal challenges to, say, a global pandemic. “The key to resilience is trying really hard, then stopping, recovering, and then trying again,” say Achor and Gielan. In other words, it’s just like building a muscle.
And recovery doesn’t automatically happen when you close your laptop or office door, either. In a 2014 paper, researchers Zijlstra, Cropley, and Rydstedt described recovery from work as “the process that restores the individual’s energetic and mental resources.” The researchers also differentiate between internal and external recovery; the former involves short rest periods during the workday, while the latter happens in the time outside of work hours, including weekends, holidays, and vacations. Both are critical to prevent fatigue and burnout.
Most importantly, downtime should be its own reward. Rest is more than a way to sharpen yourself for more work. A full and well-rounded life also includes friends, family, leisure, and purpose. The pandemic has taken so much from so many; we shouldn’t let it eat away the beautiful edges and margins of our lives as well.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.