What’s With All the Burnout?: Defining Burnout and What You Need to Recover

Recently I keep seeing the word “burnout” in the headlines of articles and in stories on the radio. People are talking about work burnout, parenting burnout, even social burnout. It seems that one thing we can all agree on is that as a society, we are burnt out with a capital B. 

So what is burnout? Burnout occurs when a person has met their limit, both mentally and emotionally. Signs of burnout include feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, frustrated, and like you’ve just had enough. You may also experience fatigue and irritability, feeling less hopeful or optimistic, feeling resentful of family, tasks, colleagues, or an employer, and feeling less accomplished or satisfied. And symptoms don’t stop there. Burnout can also impact your body. Physically, someone who is experiencing burnout may suffer from headaches, digestive problems, stomachaches, and back pain. Burnout deeply affects the person experiencing it, which may in turn impact their relationships and their loved ones. 

Why is burnout the hot topic of the moment? Well, we’ve been running a marathon unlike anything we’ve ever experienced for the past 19 months. We have endured the ups and downs of the corona-coaster, starting back in March of 2020 when we first raided the shelves of our local grocery stores for their last cans of pasta sauce and rolls of toilet paper. We’ve also experienced social isolation, constant fear, countless losses, and continuous disruptions to our lives as we knew them. And while all that was happening, we were expected to continue to meet our daily responsibilities. At the start of the pandemic there may have been some grace offered; we cheered our essential workers at 8pm, offered to pick up groceries for our neighbors, and for those of us that were lucky enough to remain employed, there was some understanding that being productive may not be our number one priority. But here we are 19 months later and, well, we are still here. We don’t necessarily have the same compassion for our neighbors and we don’t receive the same compassion from the world. It’s no surprise that we are hitting our nth wall. 

Even prior to the pandemic, burnout was steadily impacting more and more people each year. This is due, in large part, to the development of a workplace/professional culture which demands that we put our careers above everything else in our lives. We’re inundated with messaging about what it takes to be successful and as a result, we tolerate much more unreasonable and unhealthy workplace dynamics in the belief that it’s something we have to deal with to achieve our goals. As a result, we’re all at risk of developing burnout; even college students and younger kids are faced with the same type of pressure to succeed. Over the last couple of years, however, the burnout that we’ve all been experiencing is more closely linked to the ways that this pandemic has shifted our lives off axis. We’re burnt out from witnessing suffering and death, we’re burnt out from living in fear of getting sick or worse, and in many cases, we’re burnt out from the long periods of uninterrupted time that we were made to spend with, or without, our loved ones during the lockdowns. 

Parents experiencing burnout has become all too common. Juggling jobs, meals, laundry, covid fears, vaccine fears, homework, distanced learning, masks, mask refusal, socially distanced outdoor playdates, and a desire to offer your child some normalcy while the world continues to throw curveball after curveball can feel like too much. To be a parent often means putting your needs second, and that’s if you have time to even think about your needs at all. Parents have to navigate all of the responsibilities of their own individual lives while simultaneously ensuring that the needs of their children are always met. This can easily result in parents neglecting their mental and emotional health. 

And while we were specifically talking about parents in the above paragraph, frankly any type of caretaker is at risk of burnout. While parents manage all the responsibilities listed above, there are also folks who are responsible for caring for aging parents or loved ones. This would be a difficult task for many under usual circumstances, but with the pandemic this task has also become far more difficult. Not only is there a greater risk to our older adults due to the pandemic, they are also at greater risk due to the loneliness created by the pandemic. Caregivers have struggled to care for themselves and meet their own needs over the past 19 months, and have certainly struggled in trying to find ways to care for their more vulnerable family members. 

Work burnout has increased too; the novelty of working from home full time quickly faded and over time it became clear that instead of working from home, we are living in our offices. Employees report feeling unmotivated and overwhelmed. Work bleeds into their days and nights. Some are eager to return to an office, but don’t have an office to return to and others are working in offices, but continue to contend with the very real fear of contracting covid all while managing unrealistic productivity expectations. Our systems are overloaded, so it’s no surprise that people have been quitting their jobs at unprecedented rates.

There has been a great deal of research on work burnout (which is not surprising if you consider the fact that our society suffers if employees are experiencing burnout), and they have found that a number of different factors contribute to burnout. These include: unreasonable time pressure, lack of communication and support from a manager, lack of role clarity, unmanageable workload, and unfair treatment. This is a lot to contend with, and while these factors are not specific to any one field or position, all of them could potentially be exacerbated by covid.

Social burnout is yet another form of burnout people have struggled with, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Social burnout is experienced when you feel tired or overwhelmed by the mere thought of engaging in social activities, often after spending time with people. This is also known as social fatigue or social exhaustion. While we commonly imagine that social burnout is only experienced by introverts (who often have to expend energy when engaging in social activities vs extroverts, who are instead energized by social activities), the pandemic and many months of social distancing and social isolating forced many of us to do far less socializing than we were accustomed to. For some, this was painful, but for others, they found that they actually began to enjoy having time to themselves. Either way, as the pandemic has started to slow and people have been eager to resume their social lives, more people seem to find that engaging in a lot of social activity takes more energy than it used to. Yes, people are eager to reconnect with old friends and loved ones, but many are out of practice when it comes to being social, and they may be running on empty due to all of the responsibilities and obligations they’ve been managing through this pandemic.

When we reflect on the impact of the last year, it makes sense why burnout is all the rage. 

We have been ravaged, and are depleted.

So what is there to be done? Can we prevent burnout?

If you’re one of the lucky ones who is not experiencing any form of burnout, congratulations! This is worth celebrating! It is often wise to check in with ourselves to notice how we are feeling. Scan your body, are you holding any tension anywhere? Consider your self-talk (how you talk to yourself) and your response when you are asked to complete another task or attend another social engagement. If you find that your body is at ease, your response seems reasonable, and your cup feels full (or close to full), then it’s likely you have already been taking steps to prevent burnout. Self-care can be helpful in preventing burnout, which includes paying close attention to our needs and to honoring those needs. Finding balance in life is not a one time act, it’s a continual practice. By pursuing balance and acknowledging ourselves as living, breathing, needing beings, we can continue to engage with all that life asks of us.

For the rest of us, there are still ways to manage and mitigate the impact of burnout. The first step in addressing anything in our lives is to acknowledge it. Name it. See it. You may have been battling burnout for weeks or months. You have tried to ignore how you’re feeling and to “push through,” but you’re still struggling. Consider how burnout is impacting your health, your ability to care for yourself, and potentially, your ability to care for your loved ones. Notice what’s coming up for you and instead of attempting to “push through,” try to become curious about how you’re feeling and when those feelings come up. Take time to consider your needs and how you can have them met. It makes sense to start with our most basic needs: getting enough sleep, eating balanced meals, allowing ourselves to take breaks to use the restroom and to go outside to clear our minds and get some air. Remember that as humans, we also need connection. If your cup is empty and you are taking care of the basic needs listed above, check in with yourself and ask yourself if your need for social connection is being met. If it’s not, consider what small steps you can take to begin to allow for this need to be fulfilled. Then consider what else you need to feed yourself emotionally. What else can you access to fill your cup? This could be something as simple as an uninterrupted shower listening to your favorite song or it could be something that requires more planning, like dinner with a dear friend. Either way, it’s important that you make the effort to show up for yourself.

But the solution to burnout is not only in self-care. If we are burnt out as parents, as caregivers, as employees/employers, as friends, and as humans, then we may also need to increase our other-care. There’s the old adage: treat others the way you want to be treated. And more recently, we have considered the slight tweak to make it: treat others the way they want to be treated. As a society, it could be helpful to consider both of these concepts as we try to combat burnout. We need support from each other, and while it may seem counterintuitive to take on more when we are already so overwhelmed, if it’s possible to take on a bit to support someone else while they take on a bit to support you, we may find that everyone’s load is a little lighter. In our workplaces, if we consider the different factors that are contributing to burnout it’s easy to consider how they could be mitigated by additional “other-care.” Management better supporting staff, staff better supporting each other, and even staff offering management support through compassion. In our families and with our friends, offering a quick check-in and possibly sharing in our responsibilities could be a way of engaging in other-care, or, community care. If we are to consider this as a potential remedy to burn out, it means being honest with ourselves about what we need and what we can give. If your cup is empty, then you are first tasked with caring for yourself and asking for support and help. This also entails saying no, if no is what you need to say to preserve and care for yourself. And if you find that you have the capacity to say yes and to give, then you can honor yourself by doing so. We are interconnected, and the answer to burnout may not exist solely in the self or other.

Finally, if you’ve read through this article and you know that you are suffering from burnout but don’t know how to start to manage it, then please consider accessing help through a mental health professional. Having someone in your corner who can metaphorically hold your hand as you better understand what is contributing to your personal burnout and which steps to take can be very helpful. We would be glad to help with this too, so please consider this as an invitation to reach out and to take that first step.

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