I’m seeing a growing trend in therapy sessions lately. A number of my clients are reporting feeling exhausted, unmotivated, apathetic, unproductive, and have become harshly judgmental of their actions (or inaction) and their feelings. “Sounds like burnout,” I tell them. “What’s burnout?” is the most common response. The second most common response has been, “I can’t be burned out — I’ve been working from home for four months!” Keep reading to find out more about what burnout is, what causes it, and why you too can absolutely be burned out, even if you’ve had the “privilege” of working from home recently.
What is burnout?
“Burnout” is a term we use to describe a constellation of symptoms — physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral — that tend to occur when a person has been too stressed for too long. It can make you feel tired, make you vulnerable to developing headaches and muscle pain, make you prone to illness, and negatively impact your appetite or your sleep. It can create anhedonia (lacking interest or pleasure in your typically enjoyable activities), apathy (not caring about anything), helplessness, numbness, low motivation, pessimism, and a low sense of satisfaction or accomplishment. It can distort your thoughts in a way that you judge yourself harshly, perceive yourself to be a failure, and engage in self-punitive thinking (e.g. “I’m so lazy” or “I can’t do anything right”). Behaviorally, many people with burnout tend to self-isolate, withdraw from things they normally do (i.e. both their responsibilities and enjoyable activities), overindulge in food or alcohol/drugs, and act out on others in irritability.
What causes burnout?
Most people who are aware of burnout associate it with work-related stress, and it’s true that a person’s work can contribute to symptoms of burnout, but work isn’t the only contributing factor. Specifically, if you feel you have little to no control over your work, aren’t recognized or rewarded for your accomplishments, have unclear expectations, have work that is tedious and monotonous, and/or if you work in a high-stakes environment, you are more likely to experience burnout. Apart from work, if you don’t have enough time socializing, spend too little time in leisure activities, have too few close relationships, take on too many responsibilities, and don’t get enough sleep, you’re also more vulnerable to developing burnout. Additionally, you’re more likely to experience burnout if you tend to be high-achieving, perfectionistic, controlling, unwilling to delegate, and have a pessimistic outlook.
How does the COVID-19 pandemic affect the experience of burnout?
The pandemic has made social distancing an important component of keeping ourselves and others safe from the virus; social distancing also makes it much more likely that people are experiencing a number of conditions that cultivate burnout. This includes reduced social interaction, reduced opportunities for leisure activity, monotony caused by working from home coupled with limited opportunities for leisure activities, reduced opportunities for novelty and reward, and for many, greater responsibilities (I’m looking at you, parents of school-aged kids who are somehow also working from home full-time!). So no matter what your circumstances, or how grateful you are to have certain privileges, you can still experience burnout. Lots of people are in the same boat.
What can be done about it?
- Seek out closeness with others. Find ways to connect that with loved ones that feel safe — FaceTime, text, call, have socially-distanced outdoor gatherings, etc. Get creative! Connecting with others (especially those who are good listeners with positive attitudes) is medicine.
- Seek out novelty. Monotony is fuel for burnout. Try to get involved in something — anything! — novel. The human mind craves to experience things that are new, so much so that it activates the pleasure centers of the brain and creates a rush of dopamine when we are exposed to novelty.
- Seek out reinforcement. Whether at work or home, reward for your efforts is important in motivating your continued effort. Find ways to get recognition from others or to reward yourself for jobs well done.
- Seek out the meaning in your work and/or home life. You may be exhausted by your responsibilities, yet at the same time, it’s motivating to stay connected to our reasons for maintaining our roles in those responsibilities. Think about why you do the work you do, the purpose of your relationships, or what made you choose to become a parent. Focus on what you enjoy and appreciate about your roles.
- Take care of your physical body. It’s low-hanging fruit, but it bears repeating: Taking care of your physical self sets your psychological self up for success. So get plenty of sleep. Nourish your body with water and diverse nutrients. Get moving. Go outside. (Pro tip: Eat more bananas, nuts, seeds, oats, dark chocolate, berries, beans, and coffee. All of these foods have been shown to contribute to mood-boosting neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.)
- Seek out breaks for enjoyable activities and/or rest. It’s important to balance work, play, and rest, especially when you’re suffering from burnout. Your mind may initially judge your taking time off as being “lazy,” but in truth, taking time for leisure is imperative in reducing burnout and enhancing your efficiency.
- Get creative. This can come in so many forms — making art, writing poetry, journaling, cooking, baking, home decorating, arranging flowers — just about anything can get your creative juices flowing. When your brain is in creative “flow,” you overcome challenges, experience successes, and activate the reward center of your brain that releases dopamine. Creativity has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, elevate mood, boost brain function, enhance immune health, and even prevent degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
- Give yourself compassion. To be self-compassionate means 1) you are non-judgmentally aware of your experience, 2) you recognize that suffering is a universal human experience, and 3) you treat yourself with kindness while you are struggling. Treating yourself with compassion has been linked to increased resilience during burnout, as well as reductions in anxiety, depression, perfectionism, shame, performance anxiety, and body dissatisfaction. On top of this, more self-compassionate people are happier, more satisfied with their lives, have better immune function, and are more self-confident.