According to an Indeed poll on worker burnout, it’s clear that people are feeling the stresses of quarantine now more than ever. Over 52% of respondents report experiencing burnout in 2021, which believe it or not is a 9% increase from 2020’s pre-COVID iteration of the same survey. Across all ages, 53% of Millennials (born anywhere from 1981 to 1996) were the most burnt out before the pandemic, and have remained that way, with 59% experiencing burnout in 2021.
For the most part, we know the cause of this surge in anxiety, as everything from COVID to in-person work or reliance on technology is making our collective heads spin. But what exactly does burnout mean, and how do we overcome it to regain the motivation and passion we once had for our jobs?
The word “burnout” is so trendy that some of its meaningfulness might have been lost in its rise to popularity. Oddly, you may not even realize that you’re burnt out until you’re in the thick of a panic attack, or you haven’t left the house in days.
Burnout can manifest differently for everyone. You could be having trouble sleeping, or sleep too much, but wake up each day feeling like you barely slept at all. You might feel irritable, and have a low frustration tolerance for little things, like spilling coffee on your favorite blouse or forgetting to tape your favorite show. And finally, it’s entirely possible that you may have found activities that once distracted you from the banalities of your day to be harmful in and of themselves, and when you shut your brain off by scrolling through your phone or channel surfing, it’s impossible to turn your brain back on.
Whether or not you’d consider yourself burnt out, these feelings can impact your work. Maybe you’ve caught yourself zoning out during the long, tiresome hours of your workday, thinking about what you’ll have for dinner. You stare mindlessly at your screen, blankly scrolling through emails you haven’t the energy to respond to, and turn off your camera in Zoom meetings, rolling your eyes at everyone’s comments.
If these signs and symptoms sound like you, unfortunately, you’re burned out. At times like this, it’s possible that the last thing on your mind is your work. In fact, many sources recommend that someone suffering from burnout should invest their emotional energy in finding themselves again. In some cases, this is a great way to go, especially if you find that your job is contributing heavily to your mental state. However, if your love for your job has been overshadowed by the dark clouds of the pandemic, your living situation, or uncertainty about the future, there are a number of ways for you to regain some mental stamina in the workplace.
Sure, it sounds like pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, sucking it up and getting on with things – but that’s hardly the case. You can be empathetic with yourself, and at the same time, be your own rock and support system. If you’re in a situation where something that wouldn’t normally seem stressful is now making you tear your hair out, the first step is putting things in perspective.
If it’s at all possible, take a couple of minutes and relax, sit with yourself, and consider the task at hand. If you’ve done the task a thousand times before, you can reassure yourself of your own competence, regardless of your momentary anxiety. If this is a brand new task, that’s alright too – you’re capable, and as long as you stay confident, you can make it happen. Allow yourself time to process the many intense feelings you’re experiencing later in the day, but in a stressful moment, hold two things in your mind at once: that your feelings are worthy of acknowledgment, but your responsibilities need to be accomplished.
Maybe you’ve been doing things in one particular way for so long that other options wouldn’t dawn on you. If every waking hour feels like a mountain to climb, it’s entirely possible that you’re expending energy in the wrong places. Make a list of some of the most dolorous, painful activities in your day, whether they’re work-related or not, and find out who can advise you on each. Then categorize them as work-related, home-related, or related to your social relationships.
From there, you can determine who to ask for advice. Maybe a friendly co-worker or boss could teach you how to cut hours out of data entry, or a friend could show you a great new laundry service that’ll relieve some of your homemaking burdens. There’s always a way to work smart and not necessarily hard, and if you’re working hard on everything all the time, you’re selling yourself short.
It’s entirely possible that you’re unable to handle tasks at work not because of your own stress level, but because of someone else’s. Let’s say your new boss is a micromanager, and lately, you’ve noticed yourself making small mistakes you don’t usually make, and you haven’t been able to focus during meetings. Your mistakes may just be in response to the fear that they’re projecting onto you – that of a lazy employee.
The more stressed out and overbearing your bosses, co-workers, or clients can be about a project, the more checked out or stressed out one can feel in response. This is due to the psychological concept of role responsiveness – you’re playing a role that the anxious party has unconsciously prescribed to you by way of their intense, oppressive feelings. So, your boss who’s a micromanager feels the need to exert control over employees they imagine are unproductive. As a result, you become the unproductive employee that your boss fears, just because unconsciously, you’re playing the role that they put you in.
Burnout isn’t fatal, and it isn’t incurable. Just because you feel like you’re clocking in and out of work without giving it your all doesn’t mean that you need to take time off, and it certainly doesn’t mean you need to quit. Sometimes, all it takes is recognizing where the problem comes from in order to put plans in motion to fix it.
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