If it feels like you spend additional time working than ever, you probably do — and you’re not by yourself.

A 2021 Gallup poll notes that American full-time workers logged typically 47 hours per week; those connected digitally to their offices often worked a lot longer. A report commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2012 found that public-school teachers typically work 53 hours each week. And factory workers frequently put in 12-hour days.

Another study indicates that 52 percent of U.S. workers didn’t take all their paid vacation days in the previous year, leaving an average of more than a week unused; 23 percent did not take a vacation at all.

Meanwhile, inflation-adjusted wages have remained essentially flat since 1978, while the portion of workers with employer-provided health insurance (from their own job or a family member’s) fell from 77 percent in 1980 to 69 percent in 2021.

“Productivity increases only have led to average hours worked each week creeping up and up,” says workplace-trends analyst John de Graaf, editor of Get back Your Time. This suggests that real wages — when it comes to hourly remuneration — are declining.

It’s unsurprising, then, that many employees feel burned out. A 2021 Gallup poll reveals which more than half of the full-time workers surveyed admitted these were “not engaged” at work, paying only partial attention within the place where they spend probably the most time, while 16 percent reported being “actively disengaged.”

What’s happening?

“There are a couple of issues here, and one of them is money pressure,” says financial educator and advocate Ruth Hayden. “Fretting about money makes work a lot more stressful and unhealthy.

“Another is the work itself — pressure on people to perform. I keep hearing how hard most people are working, how they’re feeling like there is a job and a half.”

Most of us are familiar with the increasing pressure of the always-on workplace, in which the workday and workweek never really end. This skewed balance often leaves us frazzled and unfulfilled.

“Should you design a workplace reflecting everything we know about how the brain works, it wouldn’t look anything like today’s open-plan, distraction-amplifying spaces,” says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.

As for the hours we work, Pang says this: “Americans possess a long history of valuing overwork. One of the ways to get ahead is to simply outwork everyone else.”

While none of us can single-handedly change the rules or even the culture, we can revise the way we relate to them. The following strategies will help you take care of your health and spirit at work.

Bring Your Body to Work

When a workplace culture encourages extended hours and competition, taking breaks to move and eat quality food during the day may not feel like a priority. Yet meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness at Work, stresses the importance of listening to the body, whether we’re loading boxes or spending long hours at a desk.

“The human body is not designed to expend energy continuously,” explains ­Salzberg. “The body regularly tell us to take a rest, but we often override these signals and counter our fatigue with stimulants, including coffee, sugar, and so on.”

“People assume that being ‘knowledge workers’ means we must interact with a screen all day, and that our bodies don’t matter, and that every moment of the day is like every other,” adds Pang. “None of this is true. There are biological rhythms to attention and creativity, and we are more productive if we recognize and work with them.”

To increase your focus at the office, pay attention to those rhythms. If you’re sharpest in the morning, aim to schedule important meetings before noon and save repetitive tasks for the late-afternoon lull. This can increase your productivity — and then leave you with more energy at day’s end.

And attempt to take a brief break every 90 minutes or so throughout the workday; this provides your brain a chance to recharge. Just standing outside and feeling the breeze for a moment can be restorative. (For more on why, read Take a Break.)

Finally, while scarfing down lunch in the desk as you frantically check email can now seem nor­mal, our bodies usually disagree: They frequently rebel with digestive distress or poor sleep.

Even if all of your coworkers eat quickly or skip lunch altogether, try reclaiming your meal break anyway. If you habitually eat in a rush, take a walk outside for some fresh air before lunch. Bring food from home and eat somewhere with no screen in front of you.

Personalize Your Work Environment

Unless you're employed strictly from home, your workplace likely reflects someone else’s design tastes. Yet research shows that empowering workers to decorate their environments can improve energy, mood, and even efficiency.

In his book Messy: The strength of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, economist Tim Harford describes a 2010 study in England that observed how recruits performed tasks in differently decorated environments, some that were spare and sterile, others they could arrange themselves. Unsurprisingly, the participants preferred spending some time in the spaces they’d been invited to design. They also completed more operate in the “empowered” spaces than in those decorated without their input.

“Inside a modern office environment, there can be good reasons why people aren’t entirely control of their work — say they have to respond to their customers and boss,” Harford says. This interest in responsiveness, however, requires energized and engaged workers, and that’s all the more reason to give them control of their environments where possible.

A personalized environment means different things to different people: It could be a special stone on the desk or perhaps a full cubicle redecoration, complete with rug and designer lamp. If your employer doesn’t allow this, bring a framed photo or two to setup and take down each day. The objects matter less than the act of exercising some influence over your surroundings.

Set Clear Boundaries

Digital communication offers several advantages; it allows many of us to work remotely, for example. But it comes with a major caveat: Work follows us everywhere. Setting boundaries is vital for our well-being and the health in our relationships, as anyone who’s ever interrupted a conversation to respond to a work email knows.

Good boundaries are also important for productivity.

“When we attempt to focus on multiple tasks simultaneously, ultimately that we switch back and forth between tasks, paying less focus on both,” explains Salzberg. This often means tasks take longer and we make more mistakes.

Working only during business hours protects the caliber of your attention, both on the job and off. Set a strong end to your workday. If you’re lured to check email after hours, try setting limits on devices. Turn off your phone during family time. Make use of an app, such as Freedom, to freeze your web access for up to eight hours. And most importantly, take all your vacation days — and then leave work behind.

Manage Your Meetings

Meetings have become an enormous time-eater in today’s workplace. Over fifty percent of the office workers surveyed inside a 2021 poll labeled “wasteful meetings” as the biggest obstacle to getting their primary work done. A few simple measures can help:

  • Conduct your next meeting while standing. People tend to be sharper when they’re not sitting. They’ll often make their points more efficiently, perhaps because no one wants to stand around all day.
  • Try scheduling the next meeting for half the time you’d normally take; see if it helps improve focus and efficiency.
  • Set a clear agenda, and check items off the list as you proceed.
  • Be selective about invitations. If someone’s presence isn’t essential to a project, assume his or her time is better spent elsewhere.
  • Make it acceptable (and shame-free) to call out those who go off point, repeat something already noted, or process aloud.
  • End on time.

Communicate Compassionately

Most of us have a colleague we discover challenging. While we usually can’t control who gets hired, we are able to control how we communicate — including with people who trip our triggers.

One useful method for both work­place and personal relationships is known as Nonviolent Communication (NVC). Developed in the 1960s by the late psychologist and mediator Marshall Rosenberg, PhD, NVC is dependant on the premise that all human behavior stems from universal needs and that a compassionate approach can free up energy wasted in conflict.

The process has four steps:

  1. Observe a conflict without generalization or judgment.
  2. Identify feelings without attaching blame.
  3. Locate the universal human need at play.
  4. Request — rather than demand —a positive outcome.

Instead of demanding a distracted colleague’s attention, for example, try expressing a need for shared concentrate that moment. Or rather than complaining to some coworker because he’s always late for meetings, tell him that when he’s late it feels as though he’s not prioritizing the project.

This approach leaves room for mutual problem-solving. Perhaps someone who’s late is having trans­portation issues; someone whose attention wanders may be overloaded with tasks.

“Reframing in this way helps us to move from a victim position to an empowered position that increases our choices and our compassion,” says psychologist and leadership coach Yvette Erasmus, PsyD, LP. “And that we rehumanize people we’d previously seen as ‘difficult.’”

Salzberg points out that good communication at the office also includes how we talk to ourselves.

“We often lie to ourselves about our true feelings,” she explains. “We believe that if we tell ourselves the scary truth, we’ll have to explode our lives. This paranoia about being fully honest fosters unhappiness in the workplace.”

Still, Salzberg believes that honesty will result in more peace at work, not less.

“I have a friend who described herself as somebody who could never say no,” she says. Once the friend spent time in meditation reflecting on times she desired to say no but didn’t, “she'd feel this near-panic rise up in her own — and she learned that was her signal to say, ‘I’ll have to get back to you on that later.’ Then, once she had some space, she could refuse when she needed to.”

Honor Your Values

Finding purpose at work is crucial to avoiding burnout, yet many workplaces restrict how employees dress, act, even communicate. It can be tough to find a sense of meaning if this feels as if your every move is being managed.

Still, according to some experts, finding purpose is often as simple as paying attention to your breath.

“There’s a saying: Live short moments often,” says Salzberg.

“Don’t pick up the phone on the first ring. Allow it to ring three times and breathe. These purposeful pauses are just a way of returning to yourself and also the moment, of stepping away from the pressure and the chaos, as well as reuniting with yourself and your values.”

Salzberg also recommends reframing the way we view our jobs, which is more than making the best of a bad situation. When we decide what makes our work meaningful, we’re better able to express our deep values, even within the job’s constraints.

“I understand that one of the greatest sources of happiness at work is a sense of meaning, but sometimes the meaning isn’t going to be within the job description,” she says. “Take somebody that works in a call center fielding complaints. It might not be the job of her dreams, and on many levels might be really difficult, but she can find meaning in helping someone have a better day and treating them with love and respect.”

Know Your Exit Strategy

Human dignity depends on feeling some agency and control, and a healthy relationship with work means overcoming the sense of being trapped in a job. Hayden works together with clients to reframe their careers, designing a résumé that focuses on their entire professional self as opposed to a dry biography.

“Rather than thinking they’re stuck — they don’t get paid enough and they can’t stand it — we talk about how to use their present position as leverage for the next one,” Hayden says. “I have them make a résumé that lists the things they know how to do and what they’ve done, rather than what companies they’ve helped.”

She recommends splitting your résumé into sections, for example “software and technology” or “education and literacy,” with bullets under each section enumerating your skills and experience in that area.

“People start to realize how smart they are,” she notes, “and where they can head as they think bigger.”

De Graaf suggests an identical process of taking stock of the resources and deciding what’s most significant to you. He uses the metaphor of packing for any backpacking journey.

“The backpacker needs to ask what’s essential,” he explains. “Usually, the big problem is that the person attempts to bring too much stuff. America includes a huge backpack right now — it’s struggling under it; it’s falling over. And it’s believing that the answer is to put more stuff into the backpack, which also means we’re working longer and harder.”

In other words, if you’re holding on to a miserable job strictly because it pays a lot and then spending a lot to soothe your shattered soul, you might consider lightening your load.

Ultimately, the workplace is a meeting ground for humans where all our failings, idiosyncrasies, and blind spots are competed for 40-plus hours every week. Practicing self-care in the way we conduct ourselves and contact others allows us to find more positive, constructive ways of interacting with our jobs — which is to say, our lives. And what could be more valuable than that?

Self-Care for the Self-Employed

Carving out an independent path as a freelancer, consultant, or entrepreneur is definitely an exhilarating journey toward self-realization. But self-employment comes with its own sources of stress and worry. They are a few best practices for maintaining your balance.

Create a routine. Self-employed people could possibly get sucked into long hours that become cycles of burnout. When possible, set regular hours and make up a dedicated workspace in your home or elsewhere (see below) that you could leave when you need to recharge.

Build in rest and use. You’re writing your own calendar, so schedule daily exercise, regular meals, and also the occasional nap to restore your creativity.

Make a budget. Income can be erratic: Create a monthly budget reflecting just how much you absolutely need to earn to cover housing, food, recreation, healthcare, and other basic expenses. Hayden recommends putting aside several months’ worth of these costs so you feel more room to breathe. If you think you’re falling short, devote some time each week to reaching out to start up business prospects or clients.

Get out of the house. Working only at home could be distracting. Locate the best coffee shops and libraries where you can place in productive hours. And look into coworking spaces — many have flexible leasing plans and could be great places for finding new clients and cultivating the social benefits of the traditional workplace.