It took me twice as long as it should have to write this sentence, and it’s not even a particularly inspired one. Every morning, I write down the day’s task in an attempt to corral my attention: Write this. Edit that. Eat lunch. Walk dog. Brush hair. My attention drifts away mid-thought, ideas glittering through the fog, dancing away as I squint to bring them into view. I’m moving through molasses, dragging my brain along behind me like a balloon on an increasingly frayed string.
After more than a year of slogging through the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. is beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel. But even as we emerge from a uniquely difficult year, many of us find ourselves groping for words in a fog of malaise, vaguely dreading tasks that used to bring us joy or drowning under the Sisyphean tasks of caring for our pesky human bodies and others who depend on us. That feeling is a new kind of burnout, resulting from the toll living through a pandemic takes on the body, mind and spirit. And we’re all susceptible, regardless of our family, work or life circumstances. Here’s why, and some steps we can all take toward healing.
How pandemic burnout is unique
“Without warning, our lives changed in March of 2020, and our go-to places to find soothing and comfort were taken away,” says Emily Golden, career coach and author of The New Golden Rule. “When we think about burnout, most of us think about career burnout. Pandemic burnout is being burnt out around all things that involve our lives.”
And unlike career-related burnout that primarily hits overloaded workers, some degree of pandemic burnout is hitting everyone from Zoom-schooled teens to CEOs. The Harvard Business Review survey of burnout and well-being under COVID revealed that 85% of respondents feel their well-being has declined during the past year, with 62% struggling to balance work with other responsibilities. Overall, more of us are feeling cynical, exhausted and having a hard time maintaining friendships and other connections.
For many of us, our emotional state continues to fray or may even feel more unstable as some sense of normalcy returns. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we were in this fight, flight or freeze mode, and we were operating with a lot of energy kind of coursing through us,” Golden explains. “We're now at a point where this unique burnout, this exhaustion has really set in, and we need to practice flexibility in how we are living our lives, so that we can continue to get our needs met.”
The importance of feeling our feelings
Early on in the pandemic, I threw myself into hobbies to distract my brain from the barrage of horrors all around us. I created elaborate baking projects, bought a ukelele and logged on for a weekly Zoom happy hour with friends. My work life continued apace, but after those first few months, I found myself dreading social calls and despairing at the idea of making yet another meal. The ukelele hasn’t left its case in longer than I can remember. When I broke down sobbing over a pierogi project gone awry, I realized avoiding my feelings wasn’t working anymore.
Golden points out disproportionate reactions like mine as one of the first signs of burnout. “The thing with emotions is that they need to move through us,” she explains. “And if we try to hold them down, it's like trying to hold a beach ball underwater.”
After a period of high stress in her work and life, Rebekah Louisa Smith, Ph.D. entrepreneur, consultant and author of Born to Do It: Becoming the Leader of a Business Niche Using Powerful Spiritual Techniques, had a similar epiphany. It wasn’t until she started feeling overwhelmed, stopped enjoying the work she normally loved and found her mental health suffering that she started to understand burnout was a factor. “I realized I needed to feel the feelings and let them pass through me instead of avoiding them,” she says. “I began to learn at this point about the importance of gratitude when I was feeling these negative feelings and allowing my body to experience this process.”
Why pandemic burnout is so hard to manage
One of the most challenging parts of pandemic burnout, experts say, is that the usual self-care techniques many of us used to help soothe those overwhelming feelings were suddenly no longer an option. Sarah Jakes Roberts, author of Woman Evolve, says she could practically open her own nail salon at this point, thanks to her attempts to replicate her favorite relaxation technique at home. She started getting outside more and giving herself grace when she needed a good cry or a moment away from her family to regroup. But sometimes, even those techniques fall short. That’s because our typical self-care is equipped to handle normal stressors, not a massive crisis that has upended every aspect of our lives. In many respects, we’re trying to fight a wildfire with a garden hose.
“I think our expectation is that we can go back to the way things were, but we can’t. We've experienced so much trauma, so much grief, just so much in our world over this last year that we haven't fully processed and haven’t really figured out how this has changed me perhaps for the long term,” Roberts says. “Burnout is a result of trying to use yesterday's rhythm for today's agenda. I think that we have to be willing to learn what healthy looks like for me now, and it may not be what I was doing before the pandemic.”
How to meet ourselves where we are
To deal with this new reality, Roberts learned to pivot to what she calls soul-care, to get at the root of her feelings and what she needed in that moment. “By being connected with my soul, taking the time to literally say, ‘How are you’ and giving my soul time to respond, I was able to better assess where I was from day to day,” she says.
Golden always advises her clients to ask themselves what recharging their own personal battery looks like. And that’s different for everyone. Maybe you need to jump-start your creativity by learning something new or give yourself a sense of accomplishment by cleaning out a closet. Or maybe you need to get some fresh air, move your body or just sit quietly and turn off your brain. Other times, having a little snack or a glass of water can help, since we all get a little delicate when we’re dehydrated or hangry.
And especially in this age of Zoom everything, don’t discount the importance of social connection. Reach out to a friend, a colleague or a family member and get real about how you’re feeling. They probably need you, too. “It's okay to say, ‘I could use a little help,’” says Wayne Pernell, Ph.D. founder of DynamicLeader, Inc. “We've been thinking that this is an individual thing we're going through. And the truth is, we're not all in the same boat, but we are all in the same storm. So ask for what you need.”
Use the flexibility we’ve learned this year
No matter our life circumstances, we’ve all undergone some massive changes. Some of us pivoted to remote work and school, others swapped restaurant meals for takeout, and we all amassed a collection of face masks. Allowing yourself a sense of flexibility can help address pandemic burnout, too. “Being flexible means trying new things. And that means not being perfect,” Golden says. “We’re learning how to shift our mindset, have more grace for ourselves, and challenge ourselves to try new things. New inventions innovations didn't happen by continuing to do the same old thing or the same thing the same way.”
Approaching your to-do list in a new way can help keep it from getting too overwhelming, too. Pernell suggests thinking about your to-do list the same way you do when you’ve got a break coming up. That sense of urgency to get it all done before logging off for a few days can help snap your brain out of drudgery-induced malaise. “Blitz the work, take a break, blitz some more, take a break and set a strategy for approaching tomorrow before logging off,” he says.
Go ahead, be a person at work
Finally, realize that we don’t have to leave the lessons we learned during the pandemic in the past. “The pandemic was so traumatic for so many of us,” says Roberts. “And yet, it was also this opportunity for us to really see what really matters and what doesn't. Some of the things that we were doing before the pandemic may not fit who we are now. We are so much more aware, so much more sensitive, so much more fragile than we even realize that we weren't before.”
Before the pandemic, I pushed myself to the brink at work. And when COVID hit, I found myself burning out because I hadn’t adjusted my expectations of what I could produce or what my mental health could withstand in the midst of an international trauma. Now, I’m realizing that I’m a better version of myself when I tap into what I need. Acknowledging the toll the pandemic has taken, then doing what we can to adjust to who we are now, can make us whole again after a year that did its best to break us apart. And that’s good news for our mental health, our relationships and yes, our workplaces.
“Our world is gonna be in need of new ideas, new ways of connecting. And I think that that can only flow from the authentic version of ourselves,” Roberts explains. “When we become a person, and not just another screw in the big machine of whatever we're a part of, we're able to really bring our most authentic selves and create impactful change to our work environments as well.”
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