WORDS BY ALEXIS CHEUNG
ILLUSTRATION BY NICO KRIJNO
There’s a difference between fatigue and burnout. As we surpass the pandemic anniversary, it’s helpful to decipher which we’ve experienced and how to push through.
As per usual on the internet, there was a topical meme circulating recently. It might have had Sailor Moon or Natalie Portman in Black Swan or a guy holding a knife as its backdrop, but the text always read: “March in less than X days.” Then: “Me still processing last March.” Its laugh-to-keep-from-crying implication being: After reaching the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, none of us had fully comprehended or healed from the collective mass trauma we’d experienced. Because, of course, how could we?
The ceaseless onslaught of work from home, school at home, Zoom at home, and be-functionally-depressed at home now has a name: “The pandemic wall.” Tanzina Vega, a journalist and New York Public Radio host, popularized the term in her now-viral tweet. “Can’t think straight? Can’t sleep? Brain fog? Depression? Even random physical symptoms? I think it’s all pandemic burn out (Not the same as pandemic fatigue.),” she wrote in a thread, clarifying: “Fatigue is being tired of wearing a mask etc. Burnout means not seeing the end of it and not being able to function at optimal capacity.”
Considering that 79,900 people liked her initial tweet, it’s apparent that a lot of us are struggling. Since the pandemic started, a recent study published in JAMA Network Open showed that depression symptoms have increased threefold. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 40 percent of adults reported struggling with anxiety, depression, or substance abuse in late June. And the most recent Stress in America survey from the American Psychological Association showed that 67 percent of respondents have experienced increased stress over the course of the pandemic.
Even before last March, workplace burnout—which was coined in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger and is defined by the World Health Organization as an occupational phenomenon where work stress goes unmanaged—beleaguered the population, particularly millennials. And pandemic burnout can adversely affect certain groups more than others, namely parents with children under 18, essential workers, people of color, and young adults.
As we surpass the one year anniversary of lockdown, it’s helpful to know how to identify the pandemic wall, as well as self-care advice from experts on how to scale it and, hopefully, reach the other side.
So, What Is Pandemic Burnout? And Why Is It Happening Now?
If you’ve heard about burnout, it’s likely in reference to work. But the same things that trigger burnout in the office—unsustainable workload, perceived lack of control, insufficient rewards for effort, lack of a supportive community, lack of fairness, and mismatched values and/or skills—are omnipresent with the pandemic as well.
“At its core, burnout creates stress-related health problems that develop as a response to chronic demands and lack of resources,” explains Dr. Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association.
Typically during uncertain or stressful times, our fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in, then ideally returns to normal once the threat is gone. Because of the ongoing nature of the pandemic—not to mention other chronic stressors like racism, social unrest, climate change, the election, and loneliness—our bodies can’t find stasis, leading to burnout. No surprise, but it’s because we’ve been living under the conditions of a pandemic for a year that we’re hearing about burnout so much right now.
Okay, But What Does Burnout Feel Like?
Here’s a clinical definition from Dr. Mirna Mohanraj, assistant professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, on burnout: “The way we describe it in the literature is a combination of three main issues: One is physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion,” she says. (Check.) “Another is depersonalization, which is kind of a fancy term to say that you care about your work less.” (Check, check.) “As a result, you experience a decreased sense of personal accomplishment.” (Check, check, check.) When left unmanaged, burnout can have many symptoms and consequences from regular stress, exhaustion, brain fog, and anxiety—sound familiar, anyone?—to more severe psychiatric complications, like PTSD.
“It becomes this vicious cycle,” says Dr. Mohanraj. On an individual level, experiencing this amount of dread, helplessness, and exhaustion prevents people from caring for themselves. And on a macro level, particularly because the pandemic has no clear finish line in sight, people feel less motivated to follow evidence-based guidelines to protect themselves and their families, thus exacerbating the pandemic.
It’s Systemic, Not Personal
Before talking about self-care strategies, it’s important to emphasize that burnout is structural. As writer Maya Kosoff says in “I Hate Talking About the ‘Pandemic Wall’”: the pandemic wall “is governmental failure masquerading as personal fatigue.” Meaning no amount of yoga or meditation could have prevented our burnout from happening.
“This really is a ‘we’ problem,” says Jennifer Moss, a workplace expert and author of The Burnout Epidemic. “We already had major infrastructure and policy issues—inequality, lack of fairness, systemic overwork, and unmanageable workload pre-COVID,” she explains. The pandemic, plus adding in the future of remote work, “just lit a match to an existing problem.”
Dr. Wright echoes this sentiment, saying, “Our workplaces need to be putting in important structural changes,” particularly when it comes to manageable workload, mental health, and flexible scheduling. And Dr. Mohanraj adds that studies show that the most effective way to combat and prevent burnout is a mix of individual and organizational efforts.
If you’re not in the C-suite or senate to ensure that there’s a fair distribution of work, adequate time off, and fair compensation, Moss recommends talking to others in the workplace, be it managers or colleagues, about mental health; setting weekly check-ins with managers to clarify weekly priorities and better control workloads; and making calendar holds to create personal time boundaries.
Even outside of the office, particularly as more than two million women have been driven from the workforce because of unrealistic domestic and professional demands, fairly distributing tasks between family members can make an impact. “Ask for help and delegate,” says Dr. Mohanraj. This applies to everything from “writing a document to emptying the dishwasher to making the bed or getting groceries.”
Focus on Healthy Coping Mechanisms—and Start Slow
You might roll your eyes at the following tips because a) they seem obvious and b) you’ve heard them all before: But, during an uncontrollable crisis, it’s always best to focus on what you can control, which are healthy coping mechanisms. That includes (cue eye roll): getting adequate sleep, good nutrition, healthy activity, reducing substance use, and maintaining social connections, even if they’re virtual. “While none of those things are going to make the pandemic go away,” explains Dr. Wright, “they will protect our emotional well being, so that we can cope and be more resilient as we continue to live under this stressful situation.”
Think you could benefit from reexamining your healthy coping mechanisms? Dr. Wright recommends creating habits and routines that don’t rely on willpower. In terms of nutrition, that might mean keeping the fridge stocked with fruits and veggies and not buying junk food at the bodega. For substance abuse, that might mean removing alcohol or other substances from the house. When it comes to exercise or social support, schedule an hour walk with a friend for accountability and camaraderie each week. And, for the doom scrollers among us, set an alarm an hour before you want to sleep and engage in a wind-down routine (decaffeinated tea, reading, a bath) sans devices. “Automate as much as possible and don’t tackle everything all at once,” emphasizes Dr. Wright. Focus on one element each week to avoid getting overwhelmed and giving up, and eye roll whenever you need it.
Break Up Fight-or-Flight Responses: Breathe, Shake, Repeat
If you’re desperately trying to keep your head above water and basic healthy coping mechanisms feel out of reach, that’s okay, too. Other ways to start breaking up intense fight-or-flight or freeze responses, which are natural during traumatic crises, are concentrative and expressive meditation, according to Dr. James Gordon, author of Transforming Trauma and founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine.
Dr. Gordon relies on both when he works with populations experiencing mass trauma, from health care workers to students who have experienced school shootings. He explains concentrative meditation is basically slow, deep belly breathing—think in through the nose, out through the mouth—or mindfulness meditation where you notice thoughts, feelings, and sensations. For freeze responses, where the body feels trapped, he says that expressive meditation involves physicality—and, he adds, was developed by Indigenous people thousands of years ago.
In his trauma classes and book, Dr. Gordon recommends three to four minutes of breathing or meditation, ideally three to four times a day since 20 minutes of meditation per day has been shown to create beneficial structural changes to the brain. (This should be doable for even the busiest among us or anyone who relies on an app or podcast to calm their mind throughout the day.) He suggests expressive meditation once a day for 10 minutes, broken down like so: five minutes of shaking (literally bouncing up and down), two to three minutes of standing and noticing the body in silence, then three to four minutes of movement to music of your choice. Dr. Gordon starts here because they “help the body and brain come into balance so it’s easier to use other self-care techniques.”
Tailor Your Self-Care Strategies To Fit Your Needs
Even though the internet is brimming with time-passing activities like sourdough starters and tie-dye crafts, “There is no one-size-fits-all way to fix or combat burnout,” reminds Dr. Mohanraj, emphasizing that self-care doesn’t have to be expensive either. Instead of doing what we think we should do, she suggests “pursuing activities that are actually going to improve your mood, energy, and sense of fulfillment during this time.”
That means taking a moment for serious self-introspection and questioning. Do your current activities make you happier, calmer, or more fulfilled? If yes, keep doing them. If not, consider whether Instagram is influencing your ideas of what constitutes self-care and find other easily accessible and free strategies. Maybe it’s taking a twenty-minute walk alone (and without your phone) for a break from screen-time. Perhaps it’s dancing to Taylor Swift’s latest album in the middle of the day or stream-of-consciousness journaling to process your current anxieties. Even re-watching a Netflix murder docuseries to divert (and shock) the mind counts. (If you’re looking for more options, Dr. Gordon outlines many in his book Transforming Trauma.) Whatever you choose, be realistic about what you can manage with your schedule and check in with yourself later to make sure they’re still working.
When You Can, Look for Silver Linings
After living through what feels like the worst year on the planet, some good things are happening. “It isn’t all doom and gloom,” says Moss, particularly when it comes to recognizing the seriousness of burnout and implementing important workplace changes. “Companies are actively listening and being empathetic to the needs of their employees,” she says, citing one instance where a company gave employees extra money to care for their health during the pandemic. She’s hopeful that this organizational commitment to minimize burnout will continue into the future.
On a personal level, we might even experience post-traumatic growth. “One of the things about trauma that Aboriginal people around the planet understand is that it can open the door to transformation,” explains Dr. Gordon, who has seen this phenomenon emerge everywhere from war-torn countries to natural disaster zones. He hopes that “the pandemic will open all of us to see how connected we are to each other and that there are forces that affect all of us,” whether it’s the pandemic or climate change, racism, and inequity. If anything, he’s optimistic that after we recover from our burnout, we’ll emerge from this time “inspired to address current dangers and redress past imbalances.” Now we’ll patiently await a meme for that.