Please read Part III here.
Many relate the current level of burnout and chronic stress to a city to a rapidly spreading fire that has gotten an entire city engulfed in flames inside this pandemic. This healthcare crisis has only given greater exposure to how people had been stretched to their limits and already emotionally worn down. Massive disruption was constant and without interruption since the start of the outbreak. Much of what has been experienced can be altogether overwhelming and paralyzing. Yet, small and practically modest steps toward collective change can be embraced with hope for what lies ahead.
We have been suddenly and openly launched into unknown territory. By April 2020, 2.6 billion people went into lockdown with 81% of the global workforce fully or partially shut down. Zoom participants went from 10 million to 200 million active users at the start of the outbreak. Burnout and stress became a global reality rather than meaningful engagement. Virtual experiences are commonplace and understandable along with many not having respite from demands and responsibilities.
The historical concept of burnout research originated in the 1970s, and the global medical community debated over how to define it but came into agreement with the World Health Organization as, “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” With this definition constructed, burnout became an outlook for not only an individual’s problem but also an organizational and societal dilemma inside a pandemic. According to burnout researchers that had determined six main causes of burnout in the workplace, it became clear that these variables are at play: lack of a supportive community, lack of fairness, mismatched values and skills, insufficient rewards for work-related efforts, perceived lack of control, and unsustainable workload. Many organizational strategies have involved using self-help apps, wellness technology, yoga, and sustainable in-house gym memberships. Yet, these individualized tactics are not enough to address more of the organizational circumstances that contain the root causal factors to burnout.
These researchers used various scales and interventions to identify, assess, and better determine employees’ perceptions of work-life qualities, emotional responses to the workplace amid COVID-19, and whether these employees are experiencing higher levels of burnout or engagement while at work. Statistically, the respondents to these research inquiries indicated that over two thirds are “experiencing burnout often or too often” in the last several months since the start of this new year, and over 89% have faced an increase of work-related demands and stressors while citing that their current state of well-being had declined as a result of an increased experience in their burnout profile.
Exhaustion and cynicism are two key factors that contribute to their burnout profile. Michael Leiter of Deakin University reflects, “These survey responses make it clear that a lot of people are having serious disruptions in their relationship with work,” Leiter notes. “It’s not surprising that people are more exhausted — people are working hard to keep their work and personal lives afloat. But the rise in cynicism is even more troubling. Cynicism reflects a lack of trust in the world. So many people feel let down by their government’s poor preparation for the pandemic, as well as by the injustices in work and well-being that the pandemic has highlighted.” Nurses, physicians, and Millennials were among those ranked highest to experience high levels of burnout even during pre-pandemic circumstances and even more so during the global healthcare crisis with long shifts, lower autonomy, greater physical and financial stressors, and subjective feelings of loneliness. Feeling as if their career had setbacks, not being to exercise like they used to, economic and physical impact had strained these individuals in key areas of workload, unhealthy screen time, emotional flexibility and mental control, and superiors not recognizing that these conditions are “business as usual” for many. Acute stress transitioned to chronic stress in this season.
Burnout is seen as symptomatic and conditional within the realms of depression, cynicism, and exhaustion. It requires personal effort and grit to endure past these circumstances and remain alert to regain peak levels of performance and productivity in the workplace and in personal life and relationships. Here are strategic ways to actively allow yourself to experience a fresh reset in this season of chronic stress and burnout.
Set your mind.
Rather than responding with anxiety to the day’s circumstances, it will be helpful to create space from emotion and thought to practice mindfulness. Setting our minds right each morning will establish a healthy reset for the day’s occurrences. Upon arising from slumber, it may be tempting to pull out the phone, scroll through an endless ocean of news notifications, and swim through social media feeds. Try these steps to calibrate your mind and add focus at the start of your day:
- Take a long deep breath – more than ten seconds – and try to exhale longer than you inhale. Express a thought of gratitude in that breath. Are there people in your life that care about you? Is your family healthy? Try to feel thankful. This is not an exercise in thinking, this is a fusion between thinking and feeling.
- Set your intention for the day. This is not about your goals or to-dos. Rather, think about what type of person you will be today? An intention represents a commitment to carrying out an action in the future. How will you show up for others? Are you going to be calm and collected for family, friends, peers, and colleagues? This is an exercise in imagery, seeing yourself at your best.
- Pull off the sheets and put your feet on the ground. Take a moment to feel your feet on the floor. Be where your feet are. This is a primer to mentally and physically start your day grounded in the present moment.
You decide what your first thoughts for the day will be. Choose well. In the event of feeling anxious and unfocused for the day, take eight minutes to refocus and practice breathing and observing your thoughts without evaluation. Bring your thoughts back to the present moment and awareness of the breath when negative thoughts redirect your attention. When in practice and you get distracted, refocus back to the next breath since there is no right or wrong in this.
Practice healthy lifestyle habits.
Refer to the previous reflection on sleep hygiene here. Self-care with healthy sleep hygiene and consistent bed-time routines are crucial during times of high-stress activity. Great sleep is an integral part of maneuvering through stress. You can listen to this interview with Dr. Matthew Walker, a sleep expert and Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. The brain thrives on consistency and regularity. Going to bed each night and waking up at the same time every morning will keep a healthy circadian rhythm in check. During times of high stress, our bodies crave starches, sugar, and salt. Eating a diet with color can ward off these cravings. Many dark and leafy vegetables will provide the energy needs for our immune system. Drinking half of your body weight in fluid ounces of water will also help to flush out toxins from the body.
Social isolation has been known to lead to feelings of loneliness. This ultimately has negative repercussions on both our mental and physical health. In a pandemic season of separation from community, former mandate for shelter-in-place, and a healthcare request for social distancing, we want to gravitate toward our social tribe for solace and comfort. Use this season as an opportunity to check in with those that are on your personal list of contacts to call and connect with. Praise them. Pursue connection through empathy. Thank them for how much they mean to you and how they made a difference. Listen well. Remain curious about how they are currently. Be creative – sing and make music together. Italy is a prime example of how people came together to sing on the rooftops and balconies in these times of social distancing. People coordinated efforts to chant, hum, and croon through windows and across rooftops in appointed times. Being open and vulnerable while pursuing connection with others will be important in high-stress seasons.
Emotional resilience becomes strengthened in the face of disappointments and hindrances when we pursue purpose. You are the one that decides what story you tell yourself. An orientation beyond ourselves makes us more emotionally agile. You can read more here. Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, indicated that the main drive and motivation for man is not found in neither power nor pleasure but in purpose and meaning. He wrote, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, only by lack of meaning and purpose.” Frankl observed from his experiences in concentration camps that those that had a future-orientation toward a meaning to be fulfilled were the ones most likely to survive.
Notice those that are living and leading with purpose in these turbulent times. Observe their lives as a teachable moment and receive inspiration to overcome your own personal and stressful season.
Challenges and difficulties during this pandemic have been uninterrupted. We can build resilience. Known as the building block that separates unsuccessful from successful people, resilience can lower depression levels, improve work-life satisfaction and engagement, and positively crystallize the path forward with overcoming setbacks and maneuvering through obstacles.
“Burnout is seen as symptomatic and conditional within the realms of depression, cynicism, and exhaustion.
By Deepak Santhiraj, Licensed Clinical Social Worker
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