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'Can You Hear Me?' The Annoyances That Lead To Zoom Burnout

Working from home can be monotonous and draining. If we make room for things that bring us joy again, we might actually start feeling more productive.
JDawnInk/Getty Images
Working from home can be monotonous and draining. If we make room for things that bring us joy again, we might actually start feeling more productive.

Kristy Miller's dogs,Oreo and Dabo, often start barking right on cue when she joins a Zoom call from her home.

And much too often, Miller hears herself ask a single, exasperated question over the piercing yaps of her dogs: "Can you hear me?"

During the pandemic, like a lot of people, Miller has been working from home in Charlotte, NC, where she lives with her dogs: a white Shichon with dark droopy ears, and a Yellow Labrador.

For her, it's been a year punctuated by interruptions. Her dogs bark. Her computer crashes. She has a question, but no one is around to answer it. These daily frustrations are all roadblocks to Miller's work. To get everything done at her job in retirement planning, she's putting in longer hours each day.

"I don't know that I have a healthy work-life balance," Miller says. "Because you can always work. You don't have that separation."

It's a problem plaguing many. A recent survey by the job site Indeed found more than half of workers are feeling burned out. It's worse for remote workers, who also find it more difficult to unplug than those who work in the office.

"Zoom-Free Fridays"

It's gotten so bad that LinkedIn decided to give its employees an entire week of paid time off at the same time around the world, as CNN reported. With everyone off, employees won't feel the need to check their phones or have any emails waiting for them when they get back.

Signs show that remote work is here to stay, for many. Some large tech companies have announced that their employees can choose to work from home forever. And a recent survey from Challenger, Gray & Christmas found that nearly 80% of companies are planning to keep remote work options beyond the pandemic.

Some companies are trying to lessen the burden of constant remote video calls, or Zoom burnout. Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser announced a new "Zoom-Free Fridays" policy, banning video calls on Fridays to combat what she calls "the relentlessness of the pandemic workday." The bank is also giving all employees a holiday on Friday, May 28, calling it Citi Reset Day.

It's an acknowledgement by each of the companies that employees are drained and need time to recharge.

All this is in stark contrast to the early days of the pandemic, when companies were reporting an unexpected trend — that productivity across the board was the same or even better since people started working at home.

How to make work from home fun?

UCLA Psychiatrist Jena Lee says the nature of remote work can feel transactional, with days filled only with answering email or attending Zoom calls. The annoyances sap our sense of motivation. Simple delays like waiting for a colleague to unmute themselves on Zoom, or when our own dogs start barking, can cost us time, attention and patience.

Meanwhile, the little rewards we used to get when we went in to work are gone, like seeing colleagues face to face, grabbing coffee, or even hearing the elevator ding as we headed home for the night with a sense of closure.

"These are all things that are unconscious stimuli that are such a big part of what makes our days valuable and what makes us feel just part of the world, a part of our environment," Lee says.

Without that stimulation, we're losing sources of our energy — things that bring us balance and make the costs of working worth it. If we make room for things that bring us joy again, we might actually start getting more work done, Lee says. Reducing video calls, for instance, will free people up to focus on their more important tasks, and also to find and enjoy the things that make their days rewarding again.

The work will be there tomorrow, so enjoy the rest of today

For Angela Douglas, a project manager at FedEx, rewards come from tending to her garden in Tennessee or chatting with her sister on the phone. Those simple moments give her the energy to be more productive than ever.

She says her mother inspired her to enjoy them. Her a-ha moment came years ago when she was at work late, and her mom asked her: "Why are you still at work?" Douglas told her mom she just had stuff to finish.

To which, her mom asked: "Won't it be there tomorrow?"

That's when it hit her. "I was like, 'What? Right! And I left work ... It will be there tomorrow."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Claire Miller