The COVID-19 pandemic has left few sectors untouched when it comes to burnout. With an ever-increasing need for sector-specific crisis measures to mitigate some of the stressors faced by workers globally, society finds itself in midst of a burnout epidemic. The biggest issue we face collectively is that burning out in one’s professional life also leaves one struggling in one’s personal life. This carry-over effect is what many counselors and psychologists are seeing in their practice today.
As we prepare to enter another holiday season — a time that can add stress to a routine that is already hectic — people need to check in with themselves and consider how they are feeling during this busy time of the year. This simple step can make all the difference, and it might even improve their relationships with loved ones.
The need for interpersonal connection
Virtual therapy and telehealth platforms are continuing to emerge as a by-product of the pandemic. These resources can provide some of the emotional support people need to get through the day. For example, the company Spring Health offers virtual therapy to the employees of organizations that have added the platform to their health benefits package. It is hopeful that these telehealth platforms will also become available and affordable for everyone — regardless of employment status — especially older people and those living in rural areas.
These virtual counseling platforms, however, do not replace some of the vital interpersonal relationships humans need to thrive and build resilience. This includes their relationship with their counselor. The connections people have with each other are important ingredients in helping them feel there is meaning in life beyond what they achieve as part of a task or job.
Much like a forest where trees are interconnected with each other via their root systems, people are also connected to their community on a deeper level. This connection, however, can be compromised if other environmental factors have a negative impact on people. Recent research on pandemic-specific stressors has revealed that professionals working in health care might benefit from coping strategies that are geared toward nourishing interpersonal connections.
Although meeting and socializing with others in person used to be a common occurrence, now it is often overshadowed by all the ways in which people connect virtually, from one bandwidth to another.
Preventing work-related burnout
Dr. Maria Gualano, who was recently listed as one of the top 2% of scientists in the world according to Stanford University, conducted a systemic review in 2021 and found that three factors appear to have played a prevalent role in causing health care professionals to burn out during the COVID-19 pandemic. These factors are emotional exhaustion, high levels of depersonalization and the lack of personal accomplishments.
Focusing on the prevention of these three factors may help people develop new norms that promote their well-being in midst of a global health crisis.
Here are six tips on how employees can target and counteract feelings of emotional exhaustion and high stress related to work:
- Take breaks throughout the workday. Research from Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab shows that breaks allow the brain to reset, which can help reduce the cumulative buildup of stress. Even taking breaks in small seven-minute increments throughout the workday can make a difference if done regularly. One way to ensure you are taking a break from work is to turn off work notifications in the evenings. But if your job requires you to be on call for an extended period, then you could carve out a few minutes for yourself throughout the day (e.g., taking mental breaks for seven minutes several times a day). Although evidence on shorter workweek benefits is limited, the emerging literature shows that employees report feeling happier at work when working a shorter workweek. In addition, when people feel connected to the work they do, their well-being increases. So weaving more leisure time (even minutes) into one’s workweek can help increase feelings of well-being and lead to better work engagement, which in turn results in better work outcomes.
- Develop a point system for unwinding. Typically, I like to count one point for every 10 minutes of doing something that is not work-related (or better yet: look out a window). Find a point system that is suitable for your lifestyle, and then aim to accumulate a certain number of points over the course of a workweek. Achieving your goal for the week helps you feel accomplished, and this can lead to a cumulative effect.
- Adopt a growth mindset. In a Tedx talk on the power of belief, growth mindset expert Eduardo Briceno said we can cultivate a growth mindset by accepting that we are not chained to our capabilities. This uplifting and inspirational message is one we must all internalize in times of stress and uncertainty. I invite you to think deeply about what it means to be successful and at what cost. Only through personal reflection can we maximize outcomes at work and in our personal lives. It helps us learn about ourselves and why we do what we do.
- Shift the perspective. An inspiring way to ground yourself is to take an imaginary field trip to the moon and look back at Earth. There are no deadlines, no objectives. The beauty of this exercise lies in reflecting on the miracle of life itself, not what is accomplished throughout it. It invites you to take a step back from all the noise you encounter as part of daily life, and instead focus only on what is necessary. If practiced regularly, this activity can work to alleviate some of the chronic stress people associate with work deadlines.
- Spend time doing something for yourself regularly. When it comes to meeting work demands, people are quick to prioritize deadlines over themselves, which can lead to people feeling disconnected from their work and associating it with stress. In general, burnout rates increase when people feel they have no control over their workload and stress levels. In a society that celebrates being busy, putting oneself first should be at the top of the to-do list. Self-care is crucial in maintaining a pace that is sustainable and healthy. This rings especially true during the holidays. We often feel pressure to participate in all the festivities, bake sales, cheer, and so on. But sometimes it’s OK to not spread yourself so thin. Choose one contribution and be proud of it — your time is valuable.
- Seek out a qualified counselor. This is inarguably the most important tip for those wanting to combat burnout. Seeking out a registered counselor is pivotal in the prevention of a burnout episode because they understand the underlying challenges faced by those who struggle with managing a heavy workload and are trained to provide the tools necessary to prevent escalation. Whether someone works in health care or another industry, identifying the root causes that resulted in a burnout episode with a counselor can be the first step in implementing a solution.
Celine Cluff is a registered clinical counselor and researcher in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. She holds a master’s degree in psychoanalytic studies from Middlesex University in London and recently completed her doctorate in psychology at Adler University in Chicago. Her private practice focuses on family therapy, couples therapy and parenting challenges. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.