It’s been a rough road, this COVID-19 pandemic. Right? It’s been rough in many different ways, and I suspect we all share some of the ways in which living during these times has been challenging. As a mental health professional, I’ve been thinking and talking and presenting and writing about mental health impact of COVID. Including COVID burnout.
The best way to begin talking about COVID burnout might be to tell you how my presentations have evolved during the pandemic. In April of 2020, I presented a webinar (from lockdown), on “Coping with COVID.” Soon followed by “Parenting During COVID.” Later in the summer of 2020, my presentation was edited to reflect “COVID Fatigue.” That fatigue stuck with us for awhile and kept my presentation in circulation as a result. And then, last fall, mental health professionals began talking about COVID burnout. And that’s where we find ourselves these days, maybe with some anxiety about reentry creeping in.
So why are mental health professionals using the term “burnout” in relation to COVID? Isn’t that what happens when you are tired of your job? Well, living during a pandemic has certainly been a big job, one that we didn’t ask for. And if you look at the definition of burnout – feeling emotionally exhausted, kind of disconnected from your life, and trying not to fall into a generally negative attitude – this sure fits the way many of us are feeling right now. What about you?
Burnout creeps in over time. It results from feeling constantly bombarded, by your own fears and frustrations and anxiety, compounded by the fears and frustrations and anxiety of the people around you. If you’re in a caregiving role – especially if you’re a parent, you are especially at risk for COVID burnout.
So I repeat: If you’re feeling some burnout from this pandemic, you are not alone. And you are normal. Whew! Big sigh of relief!
Yes, I’m Burned Out! So What Can I Do?
At this point, you may be thinking: It’s great to know I’m not alone. But I’m still feeling burned out. What next? Well, going through these difficult times with my clients has taught me a few things, so let me share some techniques for coping with burnout that I hope will help you with your own burnout recovery.
First, empower yourself. During this pandemic, we have all been painfully aware of just how much of life is completely out of our control. As a result, it’s all too easy to fall into a “what’s going to happen to me next?” mindset. I have frequently said to my clients over the last year and a half that accepting where we don’t have control frees us up to focus on where we do have control. And taking good care of yourself is an area of life in which you do have control. It’s your choice. Let’s all power up!
Take a look at your self-talk. Humans are engaged every minute of the day in an ongoing dialogue with themselves. Evaluating, judging, doing the woulda-coulda-shoulda dance, and criticizing themselves. Constantly beating up on yourself for not being perfect is exhausting, and contributes to COVID burnout. Talk back to all that criticism with a voice of encouragement: I’m human. I am doing the best I can. I’m a work in progress, and learning as I go along.
Project positivity. AKA Fake It ‘Til You Make It. We can benefit ourselves and we can benefit those around us by keeping our smile in operation. Research has shown that smiling actually produces positive hormones that help us to feel happier. And projecting a positive attitude is a boomerang in that it motivates those around us to respond accordingly. Smiling is a great antidote to burnout.
Identify sources of burnout. Your emotional exhaustion may be a warning sign that something is out of whack in your life. So a hard look at yourself. Burnout is a generally bad feeling, but are there specific causes that can be addressed? Sure, we’ve got the restrictions and other challenges of a global pandemic. But is there something going on at work that needs to be addressed? At home? In your self-care routine? Getting down to the specifics with yourself might yield some additional answers for coping with burnout. Ask yourself questions. Take notes!
Keep the support network activated. The pandemic has left us all feeling isolated. Fewer get-togethers. Zoom fatigue. Work-at-home loneliness. My clients also tell me they hesitate to talk about their feelings with friends and family out of fear of being labeled a complainer and bringing other people down. However, venting is necessary and emotionally healthy. We all need a good vent once in awhile to let out those feelings that are bouncing around inside us and, by not being released, getting bigger and stronger. Call somebody in your support network and let them know you just want to vent, that you don’t need them to fix anything and please withhold judgment. And then offer to do the same thing for them.
Reframe and shift your perspective. When you find yourself falling into the cup-half-empty frame of mind, choose to make a shift. Identify what you like about your life, what’s working for you, what’s possible. Identify the contributions you make to the people around you, along with what they bring to your life. By taking a step back, you might even recognize that the cup of life is actually half full, as well as what you can be doing to make it fuller. Focus on the big picture!
See where you can set boundaries. If you are like me, you are probably getting tired of people talking about setting boundaries. It does seem that boundary setting is trendy these days. However, where burnout is concerned, setting boundaries is an important consideration. Are you wearing yourself out volunteering, signing up for meetings that don’t need to occur, agreeing to unreasonable deadlines, running yourself ragged completing tasks that could wait for another day? Consider setting boundaries, at home and at work, to conserve your emotional and physical energy. Lack of boundaries is a major contributor to COVID burnout.
Get yourself some down time. This is a benefit of setting boundaries. Take time to get some rest from the constant rat race. Little breaks like actually taking time for lunch. Getting up and taking a walk around the yard or the block. Scheduling fun time with family and friends. Who knows, maybe taking a day or two off. I am especially talking to you parents here! No breaks, no rest, leads to burnout.
Watch out for less than helpful coping. This includes not eating healthy, not staying active, maybe drinking a little too much. Disengaging from the people around you through TV or videogames and making isolation a way of life. Keep in mind that if you are taking good care of yourself, you have that much more to give to life, and the people you care about.
And a Few Ideas on Preventing COVID Burnout
By managing your daily life better, you can also help prevent burnout in ourselves and the people around you. Here are a few ideas:
Balance is everything. It kind of goes without saying, but still needs to be said. An unbalanced life is a recipe for burnout, accompanied by fatigue, frustration, and resentment. Step back and decide what your balanced life needs to look like. Work, friends, activity, family, rest, fun… and then schedule some balance, every day, every week.
Attitude of gratitude. Start out the day by focusing your mind on something you are grateful for. Psychological research has taught us that this can improve your outlook for the rest of the day. Even something simple like that great cup of hot coffee you may have started the day with (my personal favorite). Gratitude can help shift your perspective toward what’s possible and help you to open yourself up to whatever the day brings.
Be proactive about your own needs. Again, I am especially talking with parents here. Keep your own needs front and center. That doesn’t mean being selfish or not meeting your responsibilities. But it does mean paying attention to your need for rest, for people time, for learning and growth. Being aware of your own needs helps you to bring your A-game to life, because you are acting out of your best self, not your depleted, burned out self.
When the Going Gets Tough…
Be aware of burnout in your friends and family. Watch out for exhaustion, irritability, forgetfulness, pessimism, shutting down. If you sense that a loved one is experiencing burnout, reach out to them. Offer to be a listening ear while they vent, and to brainstorm some solutions. Let them know you care, and are here to listen without judgment. As we have been saying repeatedly during the pandemic, we are all in this together!
Reach out if you need additional help. Our COVID pandemic has resulted in a mental health epidemic. If you are struggling with your mental health right now – loneliness, anxiety, depression – you are sure not alone. And as we say in the mental health professions, one of the bravest things you can do is to admit that you need a helping hand and then take the next step of reaching out. So if you are a loved one is struggling, get connected with mental health support.
Better times are ahead. But right now, we’re all worn out. And so I’ll leave you with the words that I leave pretty much every conversation these days: Take good care of yourself!
Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and educator, specializing in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening health conditions, as well as their families and professional caregivers. He works with them to understand and cope with their emotions, to learn about their lifestyle and treatment options, to maintain compliance with medical regimens, to communicate effectively with each other and healthcare professionals, and to listen to their own inner voice as they make decisions about the future. His website is JustGotDiagnosed.com.