In an effort to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, many of us have traded face-to-face interactions for more screen time. Ironically, while this increased online presence can help bring us closer together during the pandemic, it can also make us feel more isolated. Between all the Zoom hours logged in work-from-home meetings and remote schooling, some of us may be on the brink of what some are calling virtual burnout.

“Part of understanding virtual burnout is understanding burnout in general,” says Isaiah Pickens, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and a former clinical assistant professor at NYU School of Medicine. “Burnout is a kind of mental, emotional, and even spiritual exhaustion," he says. "It comes from the drain of tasks that are both challenging and overwhelming in some way, without the reprieve or release of something that can recharge you in a meaningful way.”

What We’re Missing in Virtual Spaces

The recent push to remote living, working, and bonding means we're missing out on the relationship-building that we’d normally be receiving from in-person social interactions. By helping to foster this deep connection to others, these moments of connection allow us to better manage daily stressors. When we talk about virtual burnout, what we’re really talking about, says Pickens, is what we're missing—the important contextual social cues that impact our empathy levels, without which we may feel disconnected from our colleagues.

“When you're in the office, you can see if someone's just really tired or there's something going on," says Pickens. With virtual spaces, you only interact with people for a finite time, and it's easy to expect everyone to be ‘on.’ “No one knows if you had a meeting right before and you have a meeting right after and your kids are screaming in the background,” he adds. “It's harder for people to have empathy because they don't understand that context.”

Perhaps most at-risk in virtual spaces are those who have never had face-to-face interactions with their co-workers. For example, if you’ve been remotely onboarded to a new company during the pandemic, chances are you've never been in the same room as your employer, human resources team, or direct colleagues. Critical context including tone, body language, and individual communication style are missing. Not only does this increase the challenge in connecting online, but it also prevents you from picking up on subtle cues of WFH fatigue in co-workers and vice versa.

Signs and Symptoms to Take Seriously

While it's difficult to determine someone else’s level of virtual burnout, especially if you've never physically met them, there are signs and symptoms to look out for in yourself which may help prevent the problem from escalating.

Do a basic self-assessment by asking yourself if you’ve noticed new onset or an increase in the following:

  • Pre-emptively feeling fed up just thinking about the next Zoom meeting
  • Becoming easily irritated or frustrated with loved ones or co-workers
  • Zoning out during video calls or missing messages
  • Experiencing anxiety about virtual responsibilities and deadlines
  • Emotional numbness or feeling isolated

Asking these questions is important because, “Often, people aren't aware that something's wrong until something's really wrong,” says Pickens. One thing to think about is whether you're creating daily routines to recharge and rejuvenate yourself—and whether you're sticking to that program. "Once you stop, that's a sign that things can potentially go in a direction that's unhealthy,” he says.

Being proactive about recognizing when you may be having problems is important because, as Pickens notes, the sooner you recognize an issue, the quicker you can make adjustments. This prevents unnecessary pain and damage to relationships, both personal and professional.

What You Can Do

In today’s hyper-digital economy, we can arguably work, study, and shop without leaving the comfort of our home, but just because we can doesn’t mean we should. Use these practical tips to set digital boundaries to protect your mental health.

  • Talk It Out. Whether it’s muting your microphone, turning off your video, or bouncing your child on your knee, have an honest conversation with your work team about what will help take some pressure off during your Zoom calls.
  • Break It DownPickens says breaking the day's tasks into discrete chunks of time make it easier for remotely working parents with children to maintain their focus while helping their kids develop patience. When kids know there's a definite beginning and end to the time parents are occupied with work and can’t give them their full attention—and it's measured in minutes—they may be able to cut down on interruptions, because they know a break is coming. Even those without children can benefit from the frequent and regular pauses in the day. To follow through, prioritize booking a few minutes between video calls as a buffer between virtual tasks.
  • Give Your Phone a Bedtime. At least half an hour before bed, put your phone, laptop, or tablet away for the day to give your brain and eyes a break. Not only can this help clear your head and boost your mood, but it may also pave the way to getting a good night’s sleep.
  • Do a Digital Detox. When you don’t have to be online, take that as an opportunity to set digital boundaries and unplug by turning off your electronics (and notifications) and making time to get outdoors, read a physical book rather than scrolling online, and connect with friends face-to-face—and masked—while social distancing.

Originally published on Happify Daily