As we approach the two-year mark of the global pandemic and the new Omicron variant continues to sweep the country, many of us are experiencing more burnout than ever. Never mind that it’s also wintertime in January, when the bitter temperatures and lack of sunshine inevitably cast a veil of doom and gloom.
We’re burnt out on being burnt out. From the essential workers who continue to show up for our community to those working from home, where the lines between professional and personal life have blurred, the burnout has, quite literally, reached epidemic proportions. According to a new American Psychological Association report, burnout is at an all-time high across professions. 79% of employees had experienced work-related stress in the month prior to their survey, and nearly 3 in 5 employees reported negative impacts of work-related stress, including lack of interest, motivation, or energy at work. 36% reported cognitive weariness, 32% reported emotional exhaustion, and 44% reported physical fatigue, which is a 38% increase since 2019.
The inconvenient reality is there’s no quick fix for burnout, especially the extreme kind so many are experiencing now. But with a long winter ahead, the January blues setting in, and New Year’s intentions top of mind, it’s a fruitful time to reconsider our personal outlooks and strategies. Here, experts break down what burnout is, the optimal strategies for treating it, and how to ultimately change your outlook as the global pandemic continues to impact our daily lives.
What is burnout?
The “occupational phenomenon” of burnout, as the World Health Organization refers to it, is commonly understood as a condition that is the result of chronic stress in the workplace that hasn’t been successfully managed. “It was originally thought to be specific to the human-services sector, but nowadays it is recognized as a serious occupational health condition in most sectors,” explains Anna Katharina Schaffner, a cultural historian and author of Exhaustion: A History. That being said, there are some groups that are more susceptible to burnout, such as teachers and healthcare workers, for whom burnout has always been an occupational hazard, one that’s only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s very insidious and can sneak up on us when we burn the candle at both ends for an extended amount of time,” explains Bryan Robinson, a psychotherapist, professor at University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and author of #Chill: Turn Off Your Job and Turn On Your Life. He emphasizes that while burnout is a form of stress, it’s important to know the distinction between the two. “You can recover from stress with certain management techniques, but burnout is a totally different animal resulting from cumulative stress that hasn’t been managed,” he continues. “Once burnout gets its hooks into you, you can’t cure it by taking a long vacation, slowing down, or working fewer hours.”
What are the symptoms of burnout?
In the simplest terms, the key symptoms of burnout boil down to exhaustion in the form of a deep kind of fatigue that isn’t curable by resting. This permanent state of exhaustion can have ripple effects, too. “It also tends to be accompanied by a very negative assessment of our accomplishments, skills, efficacy and the value of our work, and feelings of resentment about the people with whom we work—be that colleagues, clients, or the organizations in which we are embedded,” explains Schaffner. “When we are in a state of burnout, we may also experience brain fog and an inability to concentrate. We may be prone to procrastinate and engage in endless displacement activities. We may even have a proper nervous breakdown, and become completely unable to function at work.”
How is the global pandemic impacting burnout?
Needless to say, the isolation spurred by the pandemic has had a dramatic impact on the work lives of many. “If we are working from home, that blurs the boundaries between our private and our work lives, between leisure and work time,” explains Schaffner. “The work/non-work boundary is no longer marked by walks or commutes to work and changes of location. So it is much easier for work to bleed into our lives in a boundary-less kind of way.”
“The isolation of the pandemic also has cut people off from friends and support systems,” says Robinson. “They can Zoom with them but after being on screen all day, more screen time isn’t appealing and we know that people suffer from Zoom burnout.” Along with with fear of getting sick, concerns about children falling behind in school, and even phenomenons like “pandemic posture,” it’s no wonder things have become dramatically worse, he emphasizes.
As a mother, Schaffner underlines the disproportionate impact the pandemic has on women, with many navigating the double-stress of working as normal (or even more!) with childcare and home-schooling. “With the same amount of hours available in a day, we had to do the same amount of work plus care for our children 24/7,” she explains. “If we also wanted to get some sleep and practice basic self-care, it’s mathematically and practically impossible.” What’s more: These compromises come at a psychological cost. “The feeling of failing at the work-front and at the education/parenting front resulted in constant feelings of guilt and failure,” she continues. “It is totally unsurprising that many women suffered from severe burnout during the pandemic.”
How to Find Relief From Burnout
Set Firm Boundaries
In today’s world, setting boundaries is becoming increasingly harder and harder by the day—but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. To start, saying no to things more often and creating structure, such as not checking work email or taking work phone calls after certain hours and on our days off, can make a difference. “I think email and phone checking are probably the worst rest-killers,” says Schaffner, “because they ensure that work matters are constantly on our mind, that we never let our thoughts dangle and wander, and that we fail to appreciate beauty and be properly present with our loved ones.”
Making time for self-care, whatever that looks like to you, is an essential part of preventing and treating burning out.“Some people gain energy via socializing and connecting with others, while others will refuel by walking in nature, reading, painting, baking, cooking, and doing sports,” explains Schaffner. “We need to find out what re-energizes us, and this will be unique, also depending on whether we are introverts or extroverts.”
“If we spend a lot of time sitting and staring at a screen at work, we should do something else to recharge in the evening and at weekends—not just doom-scroll!” says Schaffner.” If we are out all day moving and talking to people, we might need quiet and stillness. Our resting behaviors should be different from what we do at work.” She also suggests trying and experiencing new things, learning about new topics and seeing new places and people. “This can help us to get out of our ruts and prevents the shrinking of our horizons,” says Schaffner.
Take Microbreaks and Implement Microchillers
Microbreaks are tiny, impromptu respites during the work day. “The latest research shows that microbreaks of five or 10 minutes is the ticket throughout the day: get up, look out a window, get a snack, step outside and feel the breeze on your face, walk around the block,” says Robinson. In a similar spirit, he recommends microchillers, which are small doses of self-care of five minutes or less throughout the day. Think: mindful observation and/or meditation. “Instead of thinking of all the things you ‘have to do’ (this activates your stress response or sympathetic nervous system or the gas) practice being in the present moment—listing as many sounds and sights as you can: the birds, traffic, just notice all the sounds you are aware of, things you see around you, smells in the air, breeze through your hair for three to five minutes. Take a deep breath. This activates your rest and digest response of your parasympathetic system or the brakes.”
Seek Support If Needed
While daily, long-term stress management is a key part of fighting burnout, counseling may be the missing piece to kick start your journey. “If all else fails, seek out a professional who can help you see the water you’re swimming in and guide you to develop a self-care plan to prevent burnout,” advises Robinson.
Change your outlook
“There are some things we can do to manage stress and to get better rest and take better care of ourselves, but there can also be systemic issues that drive us into states of burnout—no matter how resilient we are or how much yoga we do in our free time,” explains Schaffner. Break down what is or isn’t in your control. Your outlook is one thing you can adjust, and that can be a good place to start when looking to break out of burnout. “It’s a type of reframing,” says Robinson. “We turn the stressor around and ask, ‘How can I make this work to my advantage?’; ‘Can I find something positive in the negativity?’; or ‘What can I overcome or manage in this situation?’” He likens this kind of “flip your perspective” thinking, as he calls it, to moving your perspective from the zoom lens of a camera to the wide-angle lens. “It has immediate and powerful stress reduction qualities,” he says. Another “perspective expander” he offers to clients is looking for the gift in a “cosmic slap,” insisting there’s always more than one we overlook. “We call this ‘post traumatic growth’ instead of ‘post-traumatic stress,’” he explains, adding that studies show that “when you look for meaning in adversity, it can enrich your life.”
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