Pandemic burnout: Irritable, tired, overwhelmed? Here’s what to do about it

Burnout is defined by the WHO as ‘feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.’ Photograph: iStock
Over the past year, the environment of the pandemic has presented huge challenges for everyone. This had led to intense fatigue, cynicism, a feeling of ineffectiveness – the so-called burnout trio
 

“Are you working more now and enjoying it less? Must you force yourself to do routine things? Are you listless, bored, constantly seeking excitement? Would you rather be somewhere else? Do you drink more than you used to?”

If you answered yes to any of the above, the German-American psychologist Dr Herbert J Freudenberger warned readers in 1980, you were in danger of what he called “burnout”, a syndrome he had first identified among volunteers at a drug clinic.

Over 40 years later, Freudenberger’s questions are resonating with a new cohort of workers. Today, burnout is defined by the World Health Organisation (which does not recognise it as a medical condition) as “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.” It was originally thought to mostly affect those in caring professions, and there’s no doubt they have been most severely affected by a gruelling year.

But those spared the worst health and economic effects, the so-called lucky ones cocooned away in spare bedrooms and attic offices, are suffering too. Not that they want to moan – everyone interviewed for this article said they realise how fortunate they are. And yet many of them don’t really feel lucky. What they feel is exhausted. Some are cynical about their work or the impact they can have. Others feel they’re constantly running just to stand still. Their jobs might not have changed, but the way they’re doing them has. The result is intense fatigue, cynicism, a feeling of ineffectiveness – the so-called burnout trio.

Some of this sounds all too familiar to Kieran Walsh. He moved from Limerick to Dublin to start a new job last July, managing South Dublin County Public Participation Network, which connects with 780 community groups. It is a rewarding role, but onboarding remotely has been difficult. And, he says, “I’m working from home in a bedsit which is the least ideal situation.” He quickly adds: “Other people have it worse. Am I allowed to complain about my stresses? I’m one of the really lucky ones.”

When he moved into his place, he thought, “‘Oh, this is small. But I won’t need to worry about it because it’s not like I’ll be working from home.’ Within two weeks, I’m literally working from my bedroom, which is my kitchen, which is also my livingroom.”

The third symptom of burnout – a lack of efficacy – may be intensified by remote working for those who rely on the scaffolding of office life to structure their day

His work colleagues are “fantastic”, but he has no family nearby and no one to form a bubble with. “So you spend your eight-hour day working through the screen. And then because of the fact that I live alone, I have to use the computer to interact more socially.”

Kieran Walsh
Kieran Walsh: 'It's so hard to delineate between work and leisure.'

He formed an online social group of “pandemic friends” around the country, some of whom also live alone. They meet on Friday and Saturday nights. “I don’t mind saying this, but my drinking has definitely increased. A bottle of wine has turned into a bottle and a half of wine. Four beers has turned into eight beers.”

Why does he think that is? “With the wine, nobody is pouring it for me,” he laughs. “It’s so hard to delineate between work and leisure. Even on the bank holiday, I was checking my emails.”

What does burnout feel like to him? “On a bad day, it feels like you haven’t achieved anything. The reality is probably different. But you’ve spent the day on Zoom and when your day is over, you say ‘What have I done today?’ You’ve moved some small items on your schedule along. But you don’t see the small increments or even the big gains, because your days are rolling into each other, and you’re wondering, ‘Am I doing this correctly?’”

Dr Deirdre O’Shea, a senior lecturer in work and organisational psychology at University of Limerick, says that “burnout is a process. We don’t wake up one morning and go, ‘I’m burnt out.’”

Pandemic burnout is not, she says, a distinct phenomenon, but “one circumstance which can exacerbate the reasons why you become burnt out”.

Prof Ian Robertson, a neuroscientist and clinical psychologist at Trinity College, says that there is debate about whether burnout really exists. “Burnout doesn’t exist as a formal diagnosis in Ireland or Britain. It does in the Netherlands. There’s no clear consensus.”

We had massive amounts of worry and anxiety. This is literally the classification of what causes burnout: increased demands and decreased resources

He thinks it is more helpful to understand burnout not as a label or an internal phenomenon, but as “a dynamic relationship between a person and their environment”. Sometimes, it’s as much to do with the culture of a workplace as the actual workload. At a chemical level, your brain can feel just as fatigued by understimulation as it can by overstimulation. 

For many of us, over the past year, the environment of the pandemic has presented huge challenges. “We had to learn an entirely new way of not just living, but working,” says O’Shea. “We had much lower autonomy. We had an increase in workload, because we had to learn all the new ways of doing our jobs. We’d lower social support, higher isolation, less physical resources.”

On top of all that, “we had massive amounts of worry and anxiety. This is literally the classification of what causes burnout: increased demands and decreased resources.”

Naomi Algeo is in the final year of her PhD and lectures undergraduates at Trinity College Dublin. She too finds her working life and her leisure time has rolled into one, with little differentiation between weekends or weekdays. As an occupational therapist, she is more aware than most of the physical manifestations of burnout. “We’re getting in this bubble of having back-to-back meetings. We’re not taking those movement breaks. We’re getting that mental fatigue as well.”

Occupational therapist Naomi Algeo at her home office in Ballingarry, Co Tipperary. Photograph: Diarmuid Greene
Occupational therapist Naomi Algeo at her home office in Ballingarry, Co Tipperary. Photograph: Diarmuid Greene

One of her coping mechanisms on bad days has been to “really cut down the diary. Pick three things for the to-do list for the day, and that’s it. If you put down 10 items, by the end of the day, you’re going to have a sense of failure.”

This strategy is also recommended by Robertson. Ticking small, rewarding tasks, that stretch you just a bit, off a to-do list “gives your brain a little surge of dopamine. Sometimes it takes small changes in the environment for that feeling of exhaustion to go.”

The second symptom of cynicism can be alleviated by taking steps to bring more meaning to your job. “Even if it’s just, I have this email that I don’t want to write, but I’m going to write it as kindly or as honestly as I can.”

The third symptom of burnout – a lack of efficacy – may be intensified by remote working for those who rely on the scaffolding of office life to structure their day. “When you’re at home, there aren’t the same cues and reminders and rewards. So you’re reliant on your own brain’s structure to create them. And the risk then is that you flit between doing emails, writing that report, making that call, and checking Facebook. ” But our brains are not designed for multi-tasking and the result is intense fatigue.

There is one group who have had little ability to control their working life over the past year, says Robertson. “I stand in awe of the people [with] young families who have tried to keep the whole show on the road,” he says.

Detachment is about 'letting go of work during non-work time' so that you can relax and recharge

As the mother of a toddler and a baby, Laura (who asked that her surname be withheld) says that “while I feel grateful to have escaped this pandemic relatively unscathed, I’m exhausted. The emotional exhaustion is the worst.

“Organisations seem to pay lip service when it comes to accommodating those of us with young children. Workloads didn’t change – we are just expected to work longer hours.” She has taken to working in the car, “as a drive was guaranteed to get her to sleep and buy me an hour to work. In my organisation, supporting employee wellbeing during Covid has been limited to an email from HR advising of information on mindfulness or a link to somebody talking about wellbeing.’

But, she says, “working parents don’t need to be told to take deep breaths or drink more water. We need practical supports and conversations about workloads.”

Psychotherapist Siobhan Murray, author of The Burnout Solution, says many organisations are all too aware of the strain on employees, and are trying to help them set boundaries around work. “The word ‘boundary’ has been so overplayed, but ultimately we need to have those boundaries for ourselves. Employers can help, but we need to put them in place.”

For her corporate clients, “one of the big things they see is members of staff losing motivation, [becoming] a little bit disengaged.” The other group most affected are those who have “onboarded into new roles without being in the office”. For this second group, “there can be a bit of imposter syndrome. Am I being perceived as being good enough?” Some of those have felt a pressure to be always on.

People are working, working, working, and then feeling they should be doing something else with all this so-called spare time they have

The first step for individuals is to identify that you are at risk of burnout. “Are you having difficulty concentrating? Are you disengaged? Are you continually not motivated? Are you finding it difficult to sleep? Are you irritable? Your body is going to ache, you’ll have muscle tension, headaches, gut health issues, you could be becoming slightly more dependent on alcohol.” Another warning sign is when “you’ve no interest in doing anything outside of work”.

In seminars she runs with organisations, she talks to employees about the process of “detachment, relaxation and mastery”. Detachment is about “letting go of work during non-work time” so that you can relax and recharge. During the early stages of the pandemic, a lot of people got stuck in mastery mode – dealing with the switch to remote work and “also challenging yourself outside of work with new things [like] making banana bread. Detachment and relaxation are getting shoved to the side and people are working, working, working, and then feeling they should be doing something else with all this so-called spare time they have.” It was, she says, a recipe for burnout.

One company that has taken steps to ease the pressure on employees is Dublin-based tech company Hubspot. Over the past year, it organised online sessions on mental health and wellbeing generally as well as on specific issues such as addiction and care-giving considerations. It organised Zoom activities for children, including story times, concerts and a virtual summer camp. “We’ve all felt exhausted, overwhelmed, or drained in the past week, month, or year. While we’ve done a lot to help employees manage stress and burnout, this is a marathon, not a sprint,” says Eimear Marrinan, director of culture at Hubspot.

In recognition of that, the company has given its workforce a week off from July 5th to 9th. Employees have also been asked not to organise any meetings for Fridays for the summer months “to combat Zoom fatigue”.

Self-employed people have one in-built protection from burnout over those in big organisations: autonomy over their own workload. But for Claire Brennan and her husband Mark Ogilvie, who run cloud-based payroll software company Parolla while raising a young family in their home in Tramore, Co Waterford, it hasn’t always felt like that. Their workload increased exponentially at the start of the pandemic, as Government pandemic supports had to be administered through payrolls.

Claire Brennan and Mark Ogilvie enjoying the beach in Tramore, Co Waterford. Photograph: Patrick Browne
Claire Brennan and Mark Ogilvie enjoying the beach in Tramore, Co Waterford. Photograph: Patrick Browne

The work was tough and emotionally draining, and they found themselves providing support to clients faced with tough decisions about letting people go. “For the first six weeks, Mark worked most nights till 4am. I usually started at 8am and juggled the home schooling and work,” says Brennan.

“We were irritable. We were extremely tired. There were times when it was all overwhelming, and you were just hoping there was food in the fridge so that wasn’t another job you’d have to do.”

After weeks of this, she started to wake up with a sore jaw and headaches. The biggest symptom was “fatigue”. When their children finally went back to school earlier this year, she felt utterly depleted, and found herself falling asleep after lunch. But 14 months in, they are finally achieving a balance. They took a few days off and fully disconnected at Easter. For Brennan, balance means yoga and a swim in the sea every morning; for Ogilvie, it’s a coffee at the beach. “It was a traumatic and stressful time,” says Brennan.

“But some of the lasting impact will actually be that we lived through it. There will be other challenges in the future, and we’ll use the store of this experience to get us through whatever comes ahead.”

Siobhan Murray and Deirdre O’Shea are fans of scheduling five-minute breaks into your day. “Even if it’s just practising box breathing while the kettle boils,” says Murray.

Physical exercise is “incredibly important. A few press-ups below your desk,” says Ian Robertson.

Try a “fake commute”, a 20-minute walk at the start and end of the working day, says Murray.

Bring your own sense of meaning to your work. Set frequent, achievable but slightly challenging goals.

Schedule time for deep focus and turn off notifications.

Try a mindfulness app, suggests Robertson. “Mindfulness is a brilliant way of learning to control your attention.”

“Try to get good quality sleep,” says Deirdre O’Shea.