Even before the global pandemic, we were dealing with a different health crisis—burnout. By 2018, Gallup reported that organizations faced a burnout crisis, and by May 2019, the World Health Organization classified burnout as an official medical diagnosis.
With the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic, along with the continued blurring of the boundaries between our work and home lives, burnout continues to be on the rise. A Limeade study found 72% of employees say they are burned out, which is a sharp increase from the 42% who said the same in their pre-pandemic Employee Care Report.
Here’s what you need to know about what burnout is, how to tell if it’s happening to you, and five ways to combat it.
Where Burnout Comes From
While burnout is a reaction to prolonged stress, all stress is not bad. We need some stress in our lives. Think about when you’re learning something new, or you’re engaged in a task that energizes you, brings out your talents, and keeps you focused. The right amount of stress helped you perform at your best. On the other end of the spectrum, we all know that when we’re faced with threats to our safety, our body goes into fight, flight, or freeze mode. At these times, our stress response and the stress hormones released are a good thing because it is what helps us survive.
We’re built for our stress response to go off only for short periods so our bodies can find the balance between responding to the stressors we face and the rest and renewal we need. The problem we face today is that we are living in a fast-paced, highly interconnected world where we’re expected to be “on” 24/7, so it’s hard to know when our work life ends and our home life begins. On top of that, the pandemic is not a short-term crisis. In the early days of COVID-19, we mustered all of the strength, energy, and focus we needed to figure out this new terrain and our new work and home “normal.” However, we’re not equipped to live in this state of constant stress. Our bodies are spending too much time in this extreme without the ability to recover. We have exceeded our surge capacity. Our Surge capacity, according to Dr. Ann Masten, “ is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters.” When we exceed our capacity for constant stress, that is when we move to burnout.
Signs of Burnout
Many people experience a three-way, mind-body shutdown: emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue, and cognitive weariness. A sense of numbness and cynicism can set in, physical symptoms like headaches and pain, and even withdrawing from our close relationships. For example, new data from Limeade shows that since the COVID-19 pandemic started, 49% of employees reported less energy for non-work activities, 42% are less interested in socializing with friends, 42% have more trouble sleeping at night, and 33% are experiencing more alcohol or substance use than usual.
Since burnout doesn’t happen all at once, most people ignore the signs and signals. Instead, they find ways to adapt to chronic stress because the adrenaline racing through their bodies mask the damage to their overtaxed systems.
How to Conquer Burnout
Given how widespread burnout is and the risks it poses for our physical and emotional well-being, we need to build habits into our work and home lives that reduce stress and promote wellness. Here are a few habits to build into your lifestyle:
1. Structure your day
It’s essential to create boundaries between work and home, especially if you are working from home. Only work in the spaces and the times that are carved out for work, and remove the guilt of not responding to emails all evening and all weekend. Create clear time blocks when you are available, then step away from your devices to remove the temptation to be “on” constantly.
2. Take reset breaks
Work in 90-120-minute chunks so that you can take regular breaks. Taking reset breaks each day is also key to conquering burnout. You don’t need any more than five minutes where you are stepping away and recharging, whether it is through sitting quietly, breathing, or moving your body and removing yourself from stress.
3. Connect with others
While you may be tempted to remove yourself from your close connections, this is the time to Keep yourself from isolating yourself from others. We are wired to be social and connect with others, so if you find that you cannot connect with someone you know, or if you need extra support, reach out to a professional.
4. Regular Exercise
Working out, whether it is a walk, run, or any other form of activity you prefer, is an essential part of conquering burnout. It’s not only a great way to keep yourself fit and healthy but will also increase your overall mood from the endorphins being released during and after each session.
5. Do what inspires you
Finding a bit of time each week to deeply immerse yourself in a hobby or something you’re passionate about is also critical. Not only does it help you reconnect with yourself more fully, but taking the time to do the things that inspire you also allows you to build energy and motivation from within.