In the past few months, entire workforces have seen rapid and radical transformations. Some individuals migrated from office settings to makeshift home offices, where they found a series of shelters-in-place drastically blurred the line between working from home and living at work. Other folks had working hours extended, were asked to take pay cuts, risk furlough, start job searching remotely, or continue putting themselves on the line as essential workers.
It's little wonder, then, that one survey found two-thirds of Americans are feeling burnt out. If you're among the many that find your energy reserves running low, here are strategies for identifying, preventing, and recovering from burnout.
1. Familiarize yourself with the symptoms of burnout
Though the world has seen a radical transformation the past few months, the symptoms of burnout are the same as they've always been. Familiarizing yourself with these warning signs can empower you with perspective to truthfully assess the amount of stress in your life – and find ways to reduce it, as necessary.
For many, the first indication of burnout is physical and emotional exhaustion. In addition to this sense of fatigue, other signs and symptoms of burnout include:
- Feelings of detachment from those around you, including your colleagues; this may be exacerbated by the nature of working remotely
- General underwhelm about the work you're doing or professional impact you have
- A sense of ineffectiveness and losing confidence in your abilities at work
- Engaging in escapist behavior, such as drinking excessively or other unhealthy coping mechanisms
- Feeling like every day is a bad day, like a cloud is over your head or feeling stuck
- Insomnia or other sleep issues due to racing or lingering thoughts. Note that it may be difficult to assess whether sleep issues are directly tied to burnout, or if they're a general response to Covid as a major stressful event
- Trouble concentrating and forgetfulness
- Physical symptoms, including chest pain, headaches, gastrointestinal pain
2. Identify which "stage" of burnout you're in
Burnout typically unfolds in stages, though some may experience it differently (especially since the course of coronavirus hasn't exactly been a linear one). What is key here is estimating the level you're at, as well as any habits or thought patterns contributing to your fatigue, so you can reposition those factors in a healthier way.
Generally speaking, the different stages of burnout are:
1. The honeymoon phase
This phase is characterized by high energy, creativity, and satisfaction with a situation. In this stage, you choose effective strategies to cope with stress.
You may have experienced this in the early onset of the pandemic, for example, when the shelter-in-place eliminated the need to commute and freed up more time in your day.
2. A balancing act
Here, you become aware that there is inconsistency in coping with stress; some days are better than others.
Anxiety – about your professional future, for example – may start to creep in, too.
3. Experiencing chronic symptoms
In this stage, you are continuously experiencing the symptoms of stress, with increasing intensity.
This stage is frequently characterized by cynicism (including generally pessimistic attitudes about work or job searching), exhaustion, anger or frustration, lack of desire (including sex drive), and apathy.
4. A feeling of crisis
The symptoms have been unaddressed and are now critical, and affecting your daily functioning.
At this stage, you may feel "empty" inside about work and your career, and experience chronic headaches or other stress-related physiological symptoms. Some turn towards escapist behaviors; a number of surveys have shown alcohol purchase and consumption has increased in the U.S. since the shelter-in-place began.
5. Feeling perpetually enmeshed
The symptoms are now habitual and embedded into your physical and emotional life.
You may be exhibiting symptoms of depression, for example, or have made the escapist behaviors part of your everyday coping mechanisms.
3. Write down a list of activities that make you feel burnt out – and consider ways to alleviate the impact of each
Any time you're dealing with burnout, you want to take an honest look at the things that are tipping the scale towards exhaustion. One way to do this is to create lists of what you tackle for both your working and non-working life. Then, turn inward to process how they make you feel (bored? anxious? fulfilled?), and see what you can do to bring about change.
Some activities that may be contributing to your burnout during Covid include:
Answering emails or alerts right away
Instead of responding to each email or Slack notification as it arrives, would you be able to set a schedule to answer non-emergency messages?
Check out your computer and phone settings to see what features can help you set healthy boundaries.
Attending multiple Zoom meetings
The monumental shift from in-person to video-conference meetings can cause Zoom fatigue, thanks to the added weight the platform type adds to our cognitive load. If you're not able to cut down on the number of meetings you have, try giving yourself space and time to decompress after each one.
Try to mix up your social life with activities that are off-screen, as well. If you're comfortable with it, consider planning socially-distanced activities for friends.
Here are some CDC-approved ideas to get you started:
- Going out to eat at a restaurant adhering to elevated hygienic standards
- Hosting a socially-distanced gathering or cookout
- Attend an event that's designed to allow social distancing
Working on monotonous or unfulfilling activities
While burnout is typically associated with excessive workload, boredom and underwhelm can also contribute.
If your workflow includes activities that underwhelm you, consider interspersing your day with more engaging alternatives that will lift you up instead of drain you. Here's a big list of quarantine-friendly activities to get you started.
4. Mindfully question behaviors or patterns of thinking that may be contributing to burnout
Burnout can mess with your mind, generating thought patterns that make you feel like you're not doing enough, like you're a failure.
While it's hard to really assess how you're contributing to your own burnout, use this as an opportunity to think about your thinking. This reflection is an effective step in understanding the root causes of burnout, and finding ways to redirect towards healthier and productive patterns. For example:
Working nonstop without breaks
For many, the pressures of remote work or job searching can feel nonstop – it's hard to unplug when your office is also your living room. But try to incorporate quarantine-friendly breaks, like a quick walk around your block, or an at-home exercise like lunges. Adding these scheduled breaks will empower you to practice time management and self-care.
Not getting quality sleep
People across the globe are experiencing sleep issues thanks to the general disruption of the pandemic; some people are reporting surreal, vivid dreams, while others report lower-quality sleep, despite snoozing longer.
If this rings true, know you're not alone – but you can push back to get better sleep, so you can fight back against burnout.
If you're struggling to get good, quality sleep, try sticking to a bedtime routine (setting a bedtime alarm is a helpful way to keep time in perspective). You can even make going to bed fun by queuing up bedtime books or podcasts, soothing sounds, or meditation.
Read on here for more tips on getting good sleep, every night.
Spending your break time on social media
Whereas before you might have broken up the intensity of the workday by chatting with coworkers or heading to a local coffee shop, these impromptu delights just aren't as easy to come by right now – and social media may seem an obvious replacement.
But endlessly scrolling through feeds can have a profound effect on our well-being, and even unconsciously contribute to our stress. Plus, triggering content and shocking headlines can take a lot of our time and energy, leaving us less prepared for doing other tasks.
Setting time limits on particular apps may help provide some balance, and even keep stress levels down.
5. Set aside time for non work-related activities that recharge you
When you're feeling burnt out, it's vital to make time for personal resting and recharging. This doesn't have to be a ton of time each day – for some, just carving out 15 to 20 minutes can make a difference in the daily routine.
Consider building in time dedicated to refreshing activities, like:
Going for a walk – alone or with loved ones
Your walk doesn’t have to be long or rigorous, but getting fresh air, and putting your body in motion does a lot to keep stress at bay.
Working on an adult coloring book page
Intricate images have the ability to give your mind a break from usual work tasks or any other draining demands.
Working on a page to completion also shows how a little work, over time gets the job done. This is also a good substitute for social media scrolling.
Reading a chapter in a book you find pleasurable
Reading, much like coloring, is an effective way to give your mind an outlet away from usual demands and activities. You can focus on a story and let your imagination lead the way.
Stacking the books you complete is also a great way to show how you are being productive and building different habits. Here are some great book recommendations to get you started!
Stretching or meditating
These activities help connect the mind to the body and vice versa. Stretching is helpful in preventing injuries and keeping your muscles loose, while meditation provides space for you to focus on breathing, releasing, and connecting to your inner self.
Calling a friend to discuss something totally unrelated to your sources of stress
To keep yourself accountable, try starting your conversation with, “I am doing my best to take my mind off of (insert whatever ‘it’ is)” and find other topics to discuss including shared memories, things you are looking forward to, or anything else you both find relaxing.
Doing intentionally generous deeds
Whether that’s donating a manageable amount to a charity that means something to you or sorting through your belongings for items to give away, giving back is a meaningful way to be productive and boost your morale.
Your part in doing charitable deeds goes a long way for others and in return gives good feelings and a sense of purpose.
6. Make sure to applaud your efforts – not just your outcomes
Honoring the small steps you've taken can help you forge your path towards a healthier, more rounded lifestyle. After all, reaffirming the steps taken to complete a task is a great way to acknowledge all you've accomplished, and help you better understand your workload so you can reimagine it as needed.
One way to do this is by breaking down bigger tasks into smaller steps, and checking off as you go along.
For example, if the task at hand is to mail a form, you could break that into several steps including: Filling out the form, addressing the envelope, finding a stamp, and bringing the letter to the mailbox or post office. You might even try using a highlighter to cross these smaller tasks as you go.
7. Remember that burnout can happen to anyone, anytime
Most of us have myriad responsibilities that need our attention, in work and home life – and when those obligations accumulate at a rate that isn’t sustainable, it can cause burnout for anybody. This exhausting phenomenon is compounded by today's climate, in which external stressors like politics and the unpredictable nature of Covid can pile on top of work-related pressures.
Remember that dealing with difficult or complex situations is a part of the human experience. Each day creates an opportunity to practice new coping strategies towards a healthier version of ourselves.
8. Consider seeking support from a therapist
Getting help from a mental health professional can be an important step in dealing with burnout. A therapist can provide assistance in uncovering the relationship between the environment, your work situation, your loved ones, and your burnout.
When your coping mechanisms for work are no longer enough, or you're struggling to navigate difficult conversations about your time and energy, help from a therapist can be the nudge you need to get to a better place in your life.
What to look for in a therapist for burnout
When tackling work-related burnout, consider prioritizing a provider who:
- Has experience in relaxation techniques (e.g., yoga, mindful movement)
- Uses a Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) approach
- Is part of an employee assistance program (EAP), if this is offered by your work
What you can expect from treatment for burnout
A session with your therapist could include getting assistance in creating strategies to manage chronic stress, identifying ways to avoid spreading yourself too thin, and helping you build a support network to help meet demands.
You can also practice difficult conversations with your therapist and identify barriers to making appropriate boundaries.
Getting better or more rest, honoring schedules, taking breaks, and engaging in other techniques to help you relax and recenter are all signs that you are making progress in your recovery from burnout.
From managing work stress to addressing your own patterns and actions, therapy is equipped to support you in your process towards a more balanced version of yourself.
1. "...one survey found two-thirds of Americans are feeling burnt out" https://www.cnbc.com/2020/07/28/remote-work-burnout-is-growing-as-coronavirus-pandemic-stretches-on.html
2. "... general response to Covid as a major stressful event"" https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7274952/
3. "... some CDC-approved ideas to get you started" https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/personal-social-activities.html