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Pandemic-Related Burnout

What it is and how to mitigate its impact.

The World Health Organization’s definition of burnout suggests that burnout is a failure to manage chronic stress. But does this definition, which places the blame on individuals, make sense during the pandemic?

Over the past year, billions of people worldwide have experienced chronic stress at work, at home, and in their communities. They’ve struggled to change how and where they work. Many people have done this while homeschooling children and caring for the elderly. Some have done this while grieving the loss of loved ones.

Given all these challenges, the current surge in burnout is not an individual failure to manage chronic stress. It is a unique form of burnout with its own causes and impacts. This is why pandemic-related burnout (PRB) requires a different approach to prevention and mitigation.

Why PRB Is Different from Other Forms of Burnout

PRB shares much in common with other forms of burnout as it is associated with heightened feelings of depression, isolation, and anxiety. One notable difference is that PRB is more difficult to recognize since, during the pandemic, PRB’s symptoms have been normalized. In fact, most people have come to accept that feeling depressed, isolated, or anxious is just something they have to endure.

The normalization of PRB’s symptoms may explain why it has become widespread. A June 2020 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 40.9% of respondents reported at least one pandemic-related mental health condition. Since the CDC’s June 2020 survey, the situation has grown increasingly dire. A December 2020 survey by Spring Health suggests the number of Americans experiencing burnout may be as high as 76 percent.

Before the pandemic, burnout was already a problem. It cost organizations across sectors an estimated $125 to $190 billion annually. Some professions are especially vulnerable to burnout. Physician burnout alone is estimated to cost $4.6 billion annually. From 2020 to 2021, the cost of burnout is expected to be much higher across industries. Fortunately, leaders can take steps to tackle PRB in their life and on their teams before it impacts the bottom line.

How to Mitigate the Stacking Costs of PRB

PRB isn’t merely a failure to manage chronic stress because PRB can’t be easily mitigated with tried and true methods of chronic stress management. Addressing PRB before it presents requires increased self-awareness and planning. It also means celebrating what we’ve gained and learned throughout the pandemic.

Balance Your Energetic Accounts Weekly

Take time each week to conduct a personal audit. Keep it simple. On a scale of 1 to 10, what is your energy level? Do this on four key levels: personal, emotional, physical, and spiritual. If you’re depleted in one or more areas, reflect on what “deposits” you might make to replenish your depleted personal accounts? For example, if you’re feeling personally drained, try scheduling a safe social event with someone you miss. If you’re feeling physically drained, try scheduling regular workouts.

Schedule and Automate the Replenishment of Deposits

When exhausted, depleted, and over-extended, it can be hard to find the motivation to take control of one’s health and wellness. It helps to have a list of things that replenish you physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Once you have a list, schedule ahead. For example, I know that I need to work out regularly to feel physically energized, so I schedule regular runs and yoga sessions. I also crave regular contact with friends, even if it is virtual, so I make an effort to schedule regular social events. While carving out time for yourself may feel selfish, it’s not. We all know that it is essential to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. The same holds true for replenishing your personal deposits.

Increase Structure to Reduce Decisions and Stress

In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz argues that too much choice comes at a cost to our wellbeing. By establishing rules (or structures) for how to live, we reduce second-order decisions. In the process, we also reduce our levels of stress. As we continue to navigate high-levels of pandemic-related uncertainty, simply reducing the number of decisions we make daily can have an impact.

Celebrate Small Victories

We all want this pandemic to end. There are also a few things that we will likely want to continue doing post-pandemic. Take time to celebrate what the pandemic has taught you and how it has changed you, your family, team, or organization for the better. Be clear about what you want to carry forward when we finally emerge from this challenging period in our history.

With small, manageable, and ongoing interventions, it is possible to mitigate the impact of PRB. Doing so won’t merely make our lives less challenging over the coming months. It will pay dividends over time by setting us up for post-traumatic growth rather than post-traumatic stress.

More from Camille Preston Ph.D.
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