It is no secret that the Covid-19 Pandemic has affected everyone. We have not all experienced the same things, be we have all experienced something. As we are moving to yet another stage in the pandemic, we are faced with something that is unprecedented in Pandemic Burnout. We know a bit about burnout, of course, but we have not quite seen a mass occurrence of it at this scale. It is a massive, sweeping issue, and we are realizing that how we handle the effects of burnout at this level need to be clarified. This is a discussion that needs to be had.
How does long term stress affect us?
Stress, Anxiety, and Mental Health are huge issues right now. We need to make well-being and mental health a priority, urgently. Studies around the world are being done, and the overwhelming conclusion is that people are most definitely being affected, in ways we were not necessarily expecting, by the pandemic. These studies have been conducted regarding how this has happened in the workplace, in academia at all levels, in our daily lives, and has provided information as to how isolation, uncertainty, transitional states, cycles of hope and fear, the mass move to working and schooling at home, and more, have caused issues for people.
There was a study done, just recently, in over 40 countries that has reported 60% of people are saying they have felt the effects of burnout often or very often all throughout the pandemic. This is concerning, because this has not been a short amount of time. The Covid-19 pandemic has been raging now for well over a year, and the effects of long term stress on the human body and mind have been well documented, making this study a bit more than distressing.
Stress wreaks havoc on our entire body, mentally, and physically. Although small bursts of stress and our reaction to that stress can be helpful, such as in immediate flight or fight situations, instances where we need to be motivated out of a short term problem, etc., the long term effects of constant stress are devastating. It makes you tired, less productive, more irritable, forgetful, and scattered. The effects on the physical body include increased heart rate, muscle tension, headaches, sleep disturbances, and stomach issues.
Stress over long periods of time can also be the cause of effects that happen due to unhealthy coping mechanisms. Studies show that stress causes people to pick up or accelerate bad habits that include drinking, smoking, binge eating, loss of appetite, and skipping activities that we otherwise enjoy. This becomes a cyclical issue, and can lead to even bigger problems.
When we are experiencing stress, our body produces Cortisol, the stress hormone. When cortisol levels are high in the human body for too long, it causes inflammation, which is responsible for a host of diseases. Heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, multiple autoimmune disorders, and more, are related to elevated inflammation.
What are some Healthy Coping Mechanisms for Managing Stress?
Of course we know that binge eating, excessive drinking, and excessive smoking are not healthy coping mechanisms, but what ARE healthy coping mechanisms? How do we even go about replacing unhealthy, second-nature, bad habits with new, healthy ones? That is a tough task, but on the journey toward wellness, this will always come up. The healthy stress management mechanisms are so important to implement into your daily routine, and they are tools that will help you be a healthier person, overall.
Replacing unhealthy coping mechanisms is a process. It should be taken one step at a time. The slow replacement of bad habits with good, healthy habits, will transform your life, but don’t expect to do all of it overnight. Pay attention to your body and mind. Try one thing at a time. You can read about the Importance of Regular Self-Care Here. Take you least healthy habit, for instance, and just work on replacing that with something different, something that is good for you. Here is a list of action items that will help you more effectively manage your stress levels over time:
Get the right amount of sleep. Not everyone requires the same amount of sleep, so it is hard to say, “get 8 hours!”, but make sure you are sleeping the right amount of time. Pay attention to your mind and body. You may still want to sleep in, but do you feel like you need a nap halfway through the day? Is is hard to keep your eyes open around 3pm? The average person needs 7-8 hours of sleep per night for the best possible health.
Stick to a healthy diet. Again, not every person is the same. We can all agree, though, that processed food is not good for you. Try to eat food that comes from the earth with the least amount of changes made to it. Fast food is not good for you, homemade is almost always better. Stay away from cooking deep fried foods, even at home. Try to eat a well balanced diet.
Exercise. Exercising releases endorphins and helps keep your body and mind happy and in tip top shape! It doesn’t matter what you do, so much, as that you enjoy what you are doing. If you hate running, don’t run. Swim, walk your dog, or skip instead! You are more likely to continue participating in activities that you enjoy doing. It is best if there is a cardio aspect to some of your activity, though, so try to pick something that gets your heart pumping, and that you’ll do at least 5 times per week.
Participate in Calming Sensory Experiences. It is important to relax, not just sleep, but actually relax. Having a moment of calm during your day can be imperative in moving forward with less stress. Listen to calming music, close your eyes and meditate, take a quiet bath, or do some restorative yoga poses. Whatever it is that calms you, slows your breathing, and quiets your mind. Do that, at least once every day.
Invest time nurturing your social network. Call people you love, and talk to them. Set up lunch or even a Zoom lunch. Your social connections are important, and it has been a struggle lately, I know, but keep in touch with people who make you feel good. They will benefit from this as well. You will be helping a friend or family member while helping yourself. Feeling stress makes some people want to withdraw. That isn’t healthy. Fight against that.
Find something that can be a Momentary Distraction. Squeeze a stress ball. Play with a fidget spinner. Something, anything, like this will be more healthy than taking another cigarette break or mindlessly scrolling through a social media feed. It will be less expensive than some of these coping mechanisms, too, which will help.
Consistent stress is one factor that leads to eventual burnout. Although there are others, including improper work/home life balance, lack of control, unclear expectations, dysfunctional social dynamics, lack of support, and swinging between extremes, stress exacerbates the situation greatly. To understand how, let’s learn a bit more about burnout.
What is Burnout?
Burnout has been recognized as a syndrome by the World Health Organization, and is characterized by physical and emotional symptoms including exhaustion, increased feelings of negativity or cynicism, and a reduction in the ability to do regular tasks. In general, it is caused by tasks, situations, or work that is constant, continuous, and requires physical, mental, and/or emotional exertion.
Studies are showing that the number of reported cases doubled from 2019 to 2020. In academia, in particular, 70% of people polled reported signs of burnout. Reports of stress, anger, and fatigue have all doubled, at least. “Patricia Grabarek, an expert in workplace wellness at USC, identifies three interrelated elements to the burnout she is now seeing: 1) emotional or physical exhaustion; 2) a sense of being disconnected from work or family; 3) a feeling of being less effective.” -Forbes
Across the board, people in these studies are reporting that their work/life balance has been distorted. A deterioration in work/life balance is another lead into burnout. Compounding this issue, there has been an uptick in job uncertainty. Layoffs and hiring freezes have left people uncertain of their futures.
For those that are still working, these same circumstances have also upped the pressure they feel, on a daily basis, to get more done, and to get it done well. One example of how this happens can be seen with teaching. Preparing for an online class is shown to triple the preparation time of that class. Teachers are expected to teach the same amount of material and in the same amount of time while learning a new platform and preparing in a different way.
This type of working environment is prone to lead into something called the Pile-Up Effect. “Kannampallil (studies clinical decision-making at the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, Missouri) says that greater job-related stressors affect one’s ability to dissociate from work, resulting in a lower likelihood of engaging in activities such as exercise, sleep and self-care that help with recovery. The heavier workload, along with less ability to recover, produces a vicious cycle, Kannampallil says. “You are emotionally exhausted yet disconnected, which creates an inability to recover and leads to a ‘pile-up effect’,” he says.”-Nature Poor mental health, lack of exercise, lack of sleep, and lack of self-care were a problem before the pandemic started. We are seeing a need now, more than ever, for these things to become a priority. Keep reading to learn about how to use self-care techniques to help you combat burnout.
Cycles of hope and fear have caused a yo-yo effect that has been nothing short of exhausting. We have been told, “These mandates will be in effect for ‘X’ amount of time.” We get close to that time, and then it is extended, then it happens again, and again. “You will be working from home for six months.” Then we are working from home for 9 months, then a year, and now it may be permanent, we don’t know.
These cycles are swinging us, internally, from one extreme to another, creating a feeling like the rug keeps being pulled out from under us. Humans don’t deal with this feeling well, and it can absolutely contribute to burnout. It also leaves us with a feeling of loss of control and uncertainty. We have been in a constant state of transition.
Humans are notoriously bad at dealing with transitional states, from the very large to the very small. We get used to certain transitions, moving from work to home and dealing with the differences between those is one example. When those transitions that we are used to get changed or taken away, we are left in an uncertain state. Will I get to go back to what I am comfortable with? Is this new routine going to be permanent? Uncertainty and not know what the future brings can be a huge anxiety and stress producer.
“This emotional overwhelm can understandably lead to or exacerbate mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. Health experts around the world have warned of a rise in the need for mental health services, which in the UK has been estimated at a 20% increase. A study in April this year looking at mental distress in more than 2,000 Americans indicated that 28% showed signs of serious mental illness compared with 3.4 in a similar survey in 2018. Young adults (18-44 years) showed the biggest downward change, and they were ten times more likely to have mental health issues.” -Gavi
Symptoms of Pandemic Burnout:
Being excessively tired, even though you have had adequate rest
Things you used to love don’t feel like they are worth it anymore, even bonds you used to have with people. This is due to extreme isolation.
Lack of motivation, or the feeling that you don’t have a purpose
Rise in anxiety when you get near someone
Lack of wanting to follow social distancing and mask guidelines
Snapping at loved ones
Wondering if or feeling like you are depressed
You are feeling more impatient and irritable
Things are upsetting you that typically would not
Tasks that you typically manage well or with ease are causing you high stress
You are feeling hopeless about the future
You are not engaging in activities that you usually love to do
You are finding it more difficult to focus and concentrate
You are eating more, and you may be consuming more alcohol or substances
Physical reactions, such as headaches, body pains, skin rashes, or stomach problems
Worsening of chronic health problems
Worsening of mental health conditions