A year and a half into a global pandemic, it may seem like everyone is burned out to some extent.
The ongoing threat and challenges posed by COVID-19 have led to a lot of continuous stress and dread for many, says Cassandra Aasmundsen-Fry, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with Mindwell Modern Psychology and Therapy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “The pandemic is the perfect storm for burnout.”
But what is burnout exactly? And can it be used to explain what you’re feeling right now?
What Is Burnout?
It’s not a health condition, according to the WHO. The term describes a set of symptoms that results from chronic workplace stress that goes un- or mismanaged.
Still, many doctors, psychologists, and other experts take a broader view and say burnout can set in outside of work, too. “Burnout, because it's a psychological state of mind, it doesn't?care if the stressors are at work or at home,” says Anthony Wheeler, PhD, professor of management and dean of the school of business administration at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania, who researches employee stress, burnout, engagement, and leadership.
For instance, it may result from caregiving responsibilities, dealing with a disease or chronic illness, or relationship fatigue, says Holly Schiff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with Jewish Family Services of Greenwich in Connecticut. “If you feel overwhelmed, drained, and unable to meet constant demands, you are burnt out,” she says.
Dr. Aasmundsen-Fry defines burnout as a state of physical and emotional exhaustion created by prolonged stress. “It’s accompanied by a sense of helplessness over one’s conditions,” she says.
What Causes Burnout?
- Feeling overworked
- Feeling underchallenged
- Time pressure
- Conflicts with colleagues
It’s about overextending yourself, Aasmundsen-Fry says. It’s taking on too many responsibilities, spreading yourself too thin, and not asking seeking or accepting support.
What’s the Difference Between Being Stressed Out and Burned Out?
Feeling stressed out, overwhelmed, or overworked can certainly lead to burnout, but stress and burnout are not the same thing.
Burnout, on the other hand, leaves you feeling empty, exhausted, and lacking motivation, he explains.
“Excessive stress is like drowning in responsibilities, whereas burnout is being dried up,” Schiff says. “Burnout is an extended period of stress that feels as though it cannot be improved.”
Signs You’re Experiencing Burnout
Sometimes burnout is obvious, and sometimes its symptoms are less clear.
Though the tool can help gauge burnout in groups of people (such as for research), Aasmundsen-Fry adds if you have concerns about burnout, you should consult a therapist or other healthcare professional who can assess your symptoms and make recommendations that are personalized to you.
- Feeling cynical or critical at work
- Having trouble getting started at work or feeling like you have to drag yourself to the office
- Acting impatient or irritable with coworkers, customers, or clients
- Feeling tired
- Finding it hard to concentrate
- Not feeling satisfied by achievements
- Feeling disillusioned about your job
- Using food, drugs, or alcohol to feel better or to numb yourself
- Changing sleep habits
- Experiencing headaches, stomach problems, or other unexplained physical issues
Burnout can also leave people feeling sad, depressed, apathetic, easily frustrated, isolated and disconnected from others, tired, overwhelmed, like a failure, and excessively worried about something bad happening, explains Carol Bernstein, MD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, whose research has focused on burnout and medical trainee well-being.
One way to tell if you’re dealing with burnout or something else is to see if the feelings are always present, or if they go away when you find yourself away from certain stressors (like a job or caregiving responsibilities) that may be contributing to that burnout.
If, for example, feelings of fatigue, depression, and apathy disappear once you get away from the work setting, that's indicative of burnout and not depression, Dr. Bernstein says. “Depressive symptoms don't go away if you get out of the circumstance,” she says.
And remember that sometimes burnout is less obvious and can manifest as with less common symptoms, such as weight gain, poor sleep, or getting sick more often (due to a weakened immune system), employee stress and burnout researcher Dr. Wheeler explains.
There are other long-term health issues and mental health issues that may arise with burnout (especially if it is ignored).
How Can Burnout Affect My Health?
Burnout that’s not addressed can compromise your work and relationships with family and friends around you. It can also manifest as serious mental and physical health issues.
Research suggests that the mental and emotional toll of burnout can have physiological effects on the body, including compromised immune health, Wheeler explains. “Burnout has been linked to increased rates of heart attack and increases in pneumonia.”
Burnout and the COVID-19 Pandemic
It’s not surprising that people are feeling more burned out (when it comes to work or other responsibilities) after more than 18 months of living through a global pandemic, Schiff says.
We experienced collective trauma, and for many of us, it stripped our emotional reserves, she notes. “So many things we did required added work and worry, and despite that we have had to continue juggling parenting, caregiving, working, and attending school.”
On top of that, many people have had to forgo the things they usually do to get away from work and responsibilities and relieve stress, such as taking a vacation and socializing, Wheeler says.
But even people not on the frontlines, such as remote workers, have experienced burnout as the boundary between work and home life all but disappeared. “The more people are working at home and the less they are working in person — that permeable boundary then gets obliterated,” Wheeler says. “Then your home stress and your work stress all get centered in one spot that you now can never get away from.”
Compounding the problem is that as a society, we don’t have good ways of addressing burnout. “But our awareness has changed, and that is the first step,” Aasmundsen-Fry says.
For instance, employers are implementing ways to show remote workers that their well-being is valued. “I am seeing companies communicate and educate employees by bringing in consultants, and some have started to even offer mental health days or weeks,” she says. “People are starting to appreciate burnout for the social epidemic it is.”
Aasmundsen-Fry says one example of this came from the dating app Bumble; the company gave workers a week off during the summer 2021 in an effort to combat burnout, according to CNBC.
What Can I Do to Prevent Burnout?
“Burnout can be prevented and more easily overcome in its early stages,” Aasmundsen-Fry says. “When you start to feel a sense of dread or feel drained and notice changes in how you engage with others, step back to assess what your needs are. In the beginning, small changes make a significant difference.”
Some tips to help prevent burnout (due to work or other causes) are:
“One of the best things to mitigate burnout is to have strict boundaries between work and home,” Wheeler says. “Routines help you set those boundaries.” He suggests not checking email after a certain time each night and turning notifications off on your phone so you’re not lured back in.
Boundaries apply to non-work-related stressors, too. “Sit down and create some time and space to take stock of how you are feeling,” Aasmundsen-Fry says. “What and who is it in your life that drains or overwhelms you? Now recognize that these are the areas which you have to set boundaries.”
For example, if a certain friend has you dreading hearing the phone ring, don’t pick up if you’re not in the mood. “It is okay to tell someone that you cannot support them to protect your own mental health,” Aasmundsen-Fry says.
Make Friends With Your Coworkers
This is more challenging if you’re working remotely, but it’s still important. If you learn of a connection or shared interest with a coworker, foster that relationship by suggesting a one-on-one Zoom, phone call, or in-person chat if you can, Aasmundsen-Fry says. Another tip: “Try to get involved with your office in making social plans or advocating for both virtual and offline social events,” she says.
Stick to a Healthy Sleep Schedule
If you’re working from home, you may be able to get away with sleeping in a little later than usual. But maintaining a clear pattern for sleeping and waking will help you maintain boundaries between your work and home life, Wheeler says. “Don't do your work in your bed,” he says. “Don't stare at computer screens before bed. Don't read email before bed. Make sure your sleeping area is just a place you can sleep.”
Make Time for Hobbies and Relaxation
Aasmundsen-Fry suggests choosing hobbies that you enjoy doing, not just ones you do because you value the outcome (knit, for example, because you love knitting rather than the hat you get because of doing it; run because you love jogging rather than to hit a certain personal record). “When we base our activities and interests solely on outcome, it becomes another source of pressure,” she says.
What Can I Do About Burnout If I’m Experiencing It — and When Should I Seek Professional Help?
To deal with it, it’s important to first recognize the signs of burnout, find the source, and identify any immediate changes you can make, Schiff says.
If finding a different job is not an option or your burnout is not work related, employ a few of these tips:
- Open up about how you’re feeling. “Make sure to talk to people you trust and lean on your social support system,” Schiff says. Talking with others about the problems you’re facing can relieve stress.“Other people provide perspective and might see ways out of the situations causing your burnout that you have not,” Aasmundsen-Fry says.
- Join a support group. Previous research involving healthcare workers found peer support groups were a useful and inexpensive tool to alleviate work-related stress and burnout.Try 7 Cups, an online community that connects you with listeners and allows you to seek advice on a variety of stressors, including work, relationships, and finances.
- Add burnout experts to your Instagram feed.?@EmilyBruth and @CatalystforSelfCare are two popular accounts that dole out inspirational sayings and tips on setting boundaries.
- Treat yourself with kindness.?Schiff says it’s important to practice self-compassion by checking in with yourself during the day, paying attention to your needs, remembering what makes you happy, and taking the steps to meet those needs.
Bernstein says talking to someone who's trained to listen and identify potential underlying mental health issues (if there are any) can help you determine your best course of action.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
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- The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use. Kaiser Family Foundation. February 10, 2021.
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- Burn-out an "occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases. World Health Organization. May 28, 2019