[This article defines occupational burnout, and the effect the pandemic has had on people’s levels of burnout. It discusses strategies for how burnout can be prevented and gives suggestions for what one can do if they are experiencing burnout.]
To feel tired after a long day at work of staring fixedly at your screen is undeniably not a good feeling. However, feeling perpetually exhausted, cynical towards your work and co-workers, and experiencing a depleted sense of accomplishment is much worse. That is what burnout looks like.
As described above, occupational burnout is the state of feeling severely washed out in a professional capacity such that it affects your attitude towards your work and yourself. Although most people conflate burnout with physical and emotional exhaustion, it comprises two other aspects: feeling cynicism and negative about one’s work, and feeling ineffective at managing one’s responsibilities. These three experiences together make up burnout.
Burnout was coined as a concept in 1974 by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. He began noticing that many healthcare workers at the clinic he worked at tended to become worn out and unmotivated, although they still cared about the work they were doing. Today, in the midst of a pandemic, our healthcare workers are more strained than they would be in normal circumstances. In an Australian hospital that treated a lot of COVID-19 patients, the health workers reported feeling high levels of exhaustion and cynicism (Lievens, 2021). A study that estimated the percentage of Canadian physicians experiencing burnout found that after the pandemic, the figure rose from 14% to 23% (Lievens, 2021). It’s important to note that burnout is not a condition specific to frontline workers or those whose work entails a lot of emotional labor. Employees at corporations and students can experience burnout as well.
One thing is for sure: burnout is a real threat to an individual’s mental health and an organisation’s quality of output and efficacy. In the interest of both parties, it must be alleviated. How can it be prevented? One of the biggest reasons that burnout occurs is a mismatch between a workplace and an employee in any of the following arenas: the level of workload, a sense of community, organisational values, fair treatment, reward systems, or level of autonomy and control. It’s important to find a job suited to one’s preferred style of working, skill set, and priorities. Although this helps prevent the onset of burnout, it doesn’t provide a foolproof shield against the condition. In these times especially, burnout can occur even when all these conditions are met. In those times, it’s important to not perceive it as a personal failing. It is not reflective of your grit as a person. This is a systemic issue, worsened by the pandemic and pushed by our tendency as a society to aim for higher, better, faster output at the detriment of the individual worker.
If you think you may be experiencing burnout, talk to your employer in order to try and adjust your commitments in a way that works for you and your organisation. Take out some time to think carefully about the adjustments you are willing to make in your work life to bring you back to a state of energy and enthusiasm. Although it is tempting to continue working as you are and trusting that your mental health will eventually self-correct, try and view this in reverse. Your mental health must be addressed in order for your relationship with your work to improve. It is also helpful to remind yourself of your progress, bringing to light the difficult tasks you were able to accomplish despite feeling this way. We applaud you for the resilience you have shown so far! It’s been a trying time, but you can do it!
Author: Stuti Bagri Content Writer, Limelighting Life Collective
Garner, B. [SciShowPsych]. (2018, January 19). Occupational burnout: When work becomes overwhelming [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved on March 3, 2021 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sceo_3BVv0s&t=223s
Kleiber, S, H. (2020, October 26). Can we not? How the pandemic has made burnout worse than ever. Wisconsin Public Radio. Retrieved on March 3, 2021 from https://www.wpr.org/can-we-not-how-pandemic-has-made-burnout-worse-ever
Lievens, D. (2021, February 10). How the pandemic exacerbated burnout. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved on March 3, 2021 from https://hbr.org/2021/02/how-the-pandemic-exacerbated-burnout