Pandemic burnout is real. We are fast approaching the two-year mark when Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, and the end is still not in sight. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single person who hasn’t been affected by the pandemic in some form.
The anxiety, stress, and uncertainty the pandemic caused make it more important than ever to take care of your mental health. Pandemic burnout affects young and old, leaving us feeling mentally exhausted, hopeless, helpless, isolated, lonely, and on edge.
Signs of pandemic burnout
Long hours and unrelenting work pressure can lead to debilitating physical exhaustion and mental fatigue. The pressure to always perform at your best makes you feel anxious, depressed, angry, hostile, cynical and irritable. You feel overwhelmed, besieged and uncharacteristically emotional and out of control.
These are typical warning signs of executive burnout. Take those red flags, add a few more listed below, and you likely have pandemic burnout.
- your sense of purpose is diminished
- you lack the motivation to keep going
- you procrastinate, put off doing tasks, don’t meet work deadlines
- you feel isolated and depressed
- you feel detached, disconnected from colleagues, friends and family
- you feel helpless, vulnerable or defenseless
- you feel guilty for having a job and a reliable income
- you feel overwhelmed, crushed, defeated
- you feel controlled, resent the loss of your freedom
- you constantly feel fearful and anxious
- a sense of doom and gloom hangs over you
- you experience panic attacks
- you’ve lost interest in people, places and activities that used to bring you joy
- you binge drink or take drugs to cope with anxiety and depression
- you start to resist Covid-19 safety protocol; refuse to wear a mask, social distance, sanitise etc.
What is the difference between pandemic and executive burnout?
Pandemic burnout is a new type of burnout, one where fear, anxiety and a sense of helplessness add a stifling layer on top of chronic physical and mental fatigue brought on by “burning both ends of the candle” on the work and home front.
Dr Meyers describes burnout as “emotional exhaustion and decreased personal achievement in response to interpersonal and emotional stress. It’s an occupational illness, a state of fatigue and frustration brought about by over-commitment to work, a cause or a way of life that does not produce the expected reward. It’s not just physical exhaustion; it’s an erosion of the soul in people.”
Dr Meyers is a Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and the author of 7 books that deal with mental health issues. Dr Meyers serves on the Advisory Board to the Committee for Physician Health of the Medical Society of the State of New York.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes executive burnout as physical and mental symptoms “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The WHO classifies burnout symptoms on three dimensions:
- emotional exhaustion (lack of energy, feeling emotionally drained)
- depersonalisation (alienated, unmotivated, skeptical, cynical)
- reduced personal and professional accomplishment
What triggers pandemic burnout?
Naturally, we felt alarmed and anxious at the start of the pandemic, but we were motivated to do our bit to flatten the curve and stop the spread of the virus. As the months wore on and we experienced the emotional yo-yo effect of lockdowns being imposed, lifted and then imposed again, it became challenging to stay positive and engaged in daily life.
Noun: fearmongering; the action of deliberately arousing public fear or alarm about a particular issue.
Emotional and mental fatigue set in, worsened by media fearmongering and the politicisation of the virus. Wear a mask, don’t wear a mask. It’s not safe to go out, it’s safe to go out. Keep kids at home, send kids back to school. Get the vaccine, don’t get the vaccine.
Decisions are questioned and judged; friends, family and colleagues turn on each other out of fear and frustration. You don’t know who to trust or what to believe; you feel out of control, disorientated and confused.
The novelty of working from home wore thin; we struggled to set boundaries for a healthy work-life balance, and became increasingly isolated and lonely. Businesses and schools shut down; we were confined to our homes. We split our time between meeting work deadlines and giving our children the attention they needed to stay on top of school work.
The pandemic created unprecedented social isolation. We experienced external isolation when we were cut off from friends, family and the outside world. We experienced internal isolation; struggling with feelings that were mostly foreign to us like distrust, disbelief and skepticism. We lived with a crippling fear of contracting the virus or a loved one getting sick and passing away.
Breakdown of work-home boundaries
Businesses suffered and shut down. Retrenchment was an ever-present threat. We were told the economic fallout from the pandemic would be long-lasting. The fear of losing our jobs kept us at our desks, working long hours to prove our worth to demanding bosses.
Mental health in jeopardy
Work stress, anxiety, frustration and mental fatigue increased as the pandemic dragged out but we soldiered on, motivated by fear of losing our jobs and livelihoods. Fear is a great motivator and spurs people into action, but it is not sustainable.
Without a solid foundation of emotional wellness, fear-based engagement is short-lived. It leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, and diminished self-esteem and confidence.
It’s okay to admit you have pandemic burnout
The Covid-19 pandemic came as a shock to people worldwide, and it disrupted our lives in extraordinary ways. There was wholesale panic over keeping our jobs or businesses afloat, paying bills, putting food on the table and staying alive.
We are still dealing with anxiety as new variants reach our shores, vaccination debates rage, mainstream media continues to flog fear and panic, and no one has any clue when life will return to normal.
It’s natural to feel overwhelmed, frightened and anxious. The pandemic appears to be here to stay, for a while longer at least. It’s a good idea to take stock of your emotional well-being and put things in place to safeguard it. If your mental state is fragile and your grip on things at work and home is slipping, you need to get help.
Remember these three things:
- It’s okay to admit you’re not fine
If you feel physically exhausted and emotionally drained, you are not alone. The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone. It turned our lives upside down, and it keeps throwing curveballs at us. It’s okay to admit you’re struggling to cope. We are rowing our boats in unchartered waters.
- It’s okay to mourn for what you have lost
The pandemic destroyed careers and businesses, stole precious time with family and friends, robbed us of milestones, took loved ones too early, and put our physical and mental well-being at risk. It’s okay to grieve, not only for what you have physically lost but for the loss of your hopes, dreams and way of life.
- It’s okay to ask for help
Safeguarding yourself from having a complete mental breakdown is just as important as wearing masks, sanitising and social distancing. Put aside feelings of guilt that you at least have a job and you’re alive when others have died. Asking for help when others are worse off than you is okay. Your mental well-being is more important than your pride.
If your emotional well-being is wobbly because you are overworked, feel isolated and depressed, struggle to keep motivated, you’re in financial trouble or feel highly anxious about the future, you need to speak to someone and get help to rebalance your emotional state. If you can’t talk to someone at work, you should talk to your doctor or a psychologist.
5 tips to ward off pandemic burnout
Re-set your mental timeframe for pandemic recovery
Three weeks to flatten the curve turned into a year, and soon it will be two years since our lives were turned inside out and upside down. Rather than fight frustration, confusion and anxiety that threatens to engulf you because daily life is so unpredictable, accept the fact that life will not return to normal for a long time. Re-set your expectations. Stay flexible and resist the urge to rail against the status quo.
Set firm boundaries for a health work-life balance
Working from home during the pandemic often leads to longer working hours; we start earlier and end later, and we’re available on weekends. We also may work longer hours or ignore work-home boundaries because we feel “so grateful to have a job”.
Companies install computer software programmes like Bossware, which is meant to monitor work productivity but instead fuels a culture of overworking. Putting in long hours doesn’t make you productive, just exhausted and disillusioned.
Speak to your boss about their expectations of your work performance and set work targets. As long as you meet those within a typical working day, you should not feel under pressure to overwork to prove your worth.
Take time off
We were in lockdown, borders were closed, and travel was restricted. With nowhere to go, we stayed home and worked hard. Lunch breaks and social chats at the coffee machine vanished, employee leave was cancelled, and we felt extra pressure to prove our worth and keep our jobs.
All work and no play is a recipe for pandemic burnout. Let your boss know when you are away from your desk for tea or lunch breaks, and put in for leave as you would do each year, even if you have a ‘staycation’ at home.
Detox from social media
The Covid-19 pandemic provided news journalists and social media with extraordinary amounts of clickbait. This is Internet content published with the sole purpose of attracting readers to sites and encouraging users to click on links on web pages. An insatiable appetite for clickbait has driven the spread of misinformation and scaremongering content.
Either reduce the amount of time you spend on social media platforms or have a complete break from them. Research shows that excessive time spent on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram can cause serious mental health problems.
Get back to doing the things you loved
Walks in the park, meeting friends for coffee, hitting the gym, birdwatching, surfing, art and crafts, road trips; try to pick up where you left off before Covid-19 was declared a pandemic. Take time away from your workstation to get fresh air, regular exercise and increase dopamine levels the natural way.
You might not be able to do everything you loved doing before Covid-19 disrupted your life, but you can find ways to refresh and reinvigorate your battle-weary mind, body and soul.
What should you do if you have pandemic burnout?
It may be necessary to take time off work and book yourself into an inpatient wellness treatment centre like White River Manor. Be kind to yourself and allow yourself time to heal if you are physically and mentally burnt out.
If you are self-medicating pandemic-induced burnout with alcohol or drugs, it’s more important than ever that you seek help before you develop a chronic addiction.
If you or someone you know is threatening suicide, please urgently call your national Suicide Crisis Line.
We’re here to help.
Contact us today if you’d like a confidential and free chat with one of our qualified mental health and addiction care professionals at Tikvah Lake in Florida.