How to Recover from Burnout During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Tanzina Vega: No matter who you are, there's a good chance that you or someone in your life is experiencing some form of burnout right now, as we continue to live through this pandemic. Medical workers, for example, are increasingly burning out, facing extreme exhaustion, both physically and mentally, but so are everyday people, parents, people living alone, and even kids, and those who have jobs during this time, maybe working more hours or just trying to work in difficult circumstances, and they're feeling it too, and
those who've lost their jobs to COVID-19, dealing with the weight of searching for work in one of the toughest job markets in years.
The pandemic is still going to be with us for a while, so we need to find ways to adapt, and that includes learning how to recognize burnout, how to avoid it, and how to recover from it. Geri Puleo is president and CEO of Change Management Solutions and creator of the "Burnout During Organizational Change Model." Geri, welcome to the show.
Geri Puleo: Thank you very much.
Tanzina: Brigid Schulte is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, director of the Better Life Lab at New America and author of "Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One has the Time." Welcome back to The Takeaway, Brigid.
Brigid Schulte: Thanks so much. Good to be here.
Tanzina: Geri, what is burnout?
Geri: Very, very good question. It seems to be used for all kinds of things right now, but what you said in the intro is really quite accurate. It is a feeling of total overwhelm, and it's a depletion of all of your resources. It's not just physical. For example, if you can sleep it off and feel better, you're probably not burned out. There's a lot of mental exhaustion that comes with it also. It's a combination of certain personality traits, environmental factors, and then it ultimately manifests into physical diseases.
Tanzina: Brigid, let's talk a little bit about-- This segment, to be frank, started with me feeling burned out, and so many other people feeling the same way. Have you had personal experience with burnout, Brigit?
Brigid: What I have to say is, I have had a lot of experience feeling completely and totally overwhelmed, and certainly that led to the first books that I wrote, which was really about trying to combine work and care as a working mother and just seeing how difficult we make it in the United States for anyone with caregiving responsibilities or anyone who isn't work devoted, but what I would say during the pandemic, I have absolutely had moments where it just feels completely overwhelming work is- it just feels like it's never ending.
You're like on this endless logging treadmill, the to-do list never ends. I can't seem to get anything finished. You're at home. There are no boundaries, there isn't like a natural stopping point, because you don't seem to be getting things done, you keep going, but I wouldn't say that that's burnout, because I still feel hopeful and I still have energy and I'm still motivated, but it's definitely overwhelmed.
I think that is an important distinction what Geri was saying, is that burnout is- overwhelmed is what I think a lot of people are feeling, but burnout is when you sink and you're at the bottom of the barrel, so to speak, and you just feel the weight of the world on top of you, and it feels almost impossible or hopeless to move forward.
Tanzina: Geri, how does burnout show up physically as opposed to how we're feeling mentally?
Geri: Physically, it can show up in the age of COVID, this is a weird thing to say, but that cold or flu-like symptoms that you just can't seem to get rid of, I'm doing some research right now on gender differences in burnout, and one of the women who I spoke with said that her husband, when she was in the thrill of burnout, called it the season of the never-ending flu. It can be that type of a thing. It can also be gastrointestinal problems, weight gain. I'm finding a lot of the women are gaining between 20 and 25 pounds when they're really burned out.
Absolute exhaustion, which can be difficulty falling asleep, difficulty waking up in the morning or waking up at that infamous 2:00 AM, which seems to be the magic time when most of us wake up due to stress. It also can manifest in cardiovascular problems. In my original research that led to the beat off model, about 15% of the people whom I interviewed after they left the stressful work situation were diagnosed with cancer. They are finding some connections between the different chemicals that serves through your body with stress and the introduction of cancer. It's really quite serious.
Tanzina: Brigid, what are the differences? I think some of the things that we're describing here, we've talked a lot about the mental health effects of the pandemic. I'm wondering if there's a way to differentiate, feeling depressed as opposed to feeling burned out, or if those two things are in alignment.
Brigid: These are such good questions. As Geri was saying, there is a lot of overlap. You can feel depressed and anxious, you can feel overwhelmed, but I think the difference is really the duration of it, the intensity of it. Can you get help, can you get a medication? Can you go for a walk? Does that change your mood? Does it lighten you. With burnout, it's like that chronic ongoing, never-ending stress that really leads to really such an intense physical and mental and emotional exhaustion.
Tanzina: Geri, you talked little bit about how women manifest burnout, or at least the women that you are interviewing. Are there any gender differences for how men manifest burnout that you're seeing?
Geri: In the preliminary stages of interviewing the men, but what I'm finding right now is that if you use Christina’s Maslach's burnout inventory, which is the gold standard for determining if someone is burned out, she states that burnout is a state in which there's extreme exhaustion. There's increased cynicism, but there's decreased productivity. In one study that was done, the women felt the exhaustion, then they became cynical, and then their productivity went down.
In contrast, the men were first cynical, then they were exhausted, but they said their productivity never was depleted or decreased. The question, of course, is did they not notice that their productivity went down, or did their productivity actually not go down? My suspicion is, they probably just didn't recognize the decreased productivity.
I think also the differences in burnout between men and women might be very similar to the differences in the way depression is manifested between men and women. When I've asked the women in my project, "What do you think, is there a difference?" What they said is, they believe that the women tend to internalize more and blame themselves, whereas the men seem to act out more, but there is a difference. Hopefully, with the research that I'm doing, I can finally clarify those distinctions so that people who are at risk can be identified and they can receive the proper care to recover from burnout.
Tanzina: What about kids, Geri? Because kids right now are also dealing as-- Here in New York, we just closed the schools once again, to go back to remote learning. Kids are zoomed out, if you will. How is burnout manifesting in children today?
Geri: That's very interesting, because there was a research project. I think it was the American Stress Institute, and they found that the rate or the levels of stress in children were higher than in their parents, and that was even in the summer when they were not in school. I think burnout is, I hate to use the word epidemic, especially in this age of the pandemic, but it is an epidemic proportions and it's affecting all ages, both genders, all class of socio-economic classifications, and it's something very, very serious. A lot of times it is related to the work, because there's a lot of stressful workplaces out there at this point.
Tanzina: We're going to talk a little bit more about those workplaces in a minute. Brigid, we asked our listeners about that they had for you and folks and Geri on burnout. One of our listeners wanted to know, and I'm quoting here, "How can we stay motivated and productive at work in times when we're not getting all the in-person pieces to recharge? How can we feel less lonely when the Zoom meetings just don't cut it anymore?
Brigid: Yes, it's so funny when Geri said that kids are zoomed out, I thought I'm zoomed out. I spent most of my day, yesterday on Zoom, and it just felt like a terrible day. I never left this office. I think so many people are like that. The crazy thing is that if you're able to spend your day on Zoom, you're one of the lucky ones, because we've got health workers, doctors, essential workers who are literally putting their lives on the line to go to work. That is an additional burden of stress that they're dealing with.
I think the first thing to recognize in all of this, how to stay motivated, to first realize you're not alone, that everybody is dealing with this, that even though it can feel so isolating, this is actually a very universal experience right now. That said, recognize that your body needs activity, it needs motion, recognize that your soul, your human nature, you need connection, you need that. We're very social creatures, you need that connection and interaction. Our brains crave novelty. All of these things are difficult right now. I think that's the first thing to recognize, is that you're not alone, that it is difficult to give yourself some compassion, maybe lower your expectations.
When the pandemic first started, people were writing pieces about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear in the pandemic. Then there was all this almost like pandemic performance pressure. Take all of that off, getting through the day really has to be enough. Creating some boundaries and space, and recognizing that time for rest even, if it's a couple of breaths, even if it's taking a walk around the block with a mask on and socially distancing, some of those things are really important to build into your day.
Tanzina: I've been doing a lot of those walks with masks on to just take a break. Geri, is it possible to overcome burnout?
Tanzina: This is some good news. How do we do that, in addition to what Brigid already laid out?
Geri: Brigid gave some very good recommendations. One thing that I would suggest is to practice meditation, or mindfulness, or to do physical activity. A lot depends on your personality. What I'm finding is that some people go into the mindfulness, the breathing exercises, the more spiritual, emotional sides to de-stress. Then eventually, they get more into the physical. I have other people who are much more physically active. The physical activity is almost their meditation. As they start feeling better, then they delve into the mindfulness and the breathing, and things like that.
There is no silver bullet for it. In my research, I discovered that recovery from burnout is separating yourself from the stressor, and then engaging in the self-reflection so that your recovery is essentially a revised psychological contract. All that means is a fancy-schmancy way of saying, "This is what I'm going to give, and this is what I expect in return." That goes in with what Brigid was saying about boundaries.
Tanzina: Geri, a lot of the reason for doing this segment was personal. I felt not so much depressed, I just felt depleted. I feel so many other people are feeling this sense of just hitting the wall, just full on, can't do it anymore.
Geri: Yes, I agree with you. It's not only hitting the wall, but feeling like you went splat when you hit the wall too. It literally requires-- I think part of the problem is, is that most people deny that they're burned out. The fact that you're saying, "I think I am burned out." That should be a woohoo moment, because you're on the road then to the recovery. You can't resolve it until you identify that there is a problem.
Tanzina: A lot of this is also happening while people are working. I'm wondering, a lot of your work has focused on that intersection. Are companies being more- are they more aware of the issues that their employees can face with burnout in this time, in particular?
Geri: To be honest, it depends on what country you're in. Europe is far advanced, and much, much further along in identifying burnout in the workplace than the US is. In the United States, the progressive companies fully understand how important their employees are. If you don't have great employees, you don't have a great company. Those more progressive companies are aware of, I hate to call it mental health issues, because burnout hasn't been identified as a psychological condition yet, but it has with the World Health Organization back in May 2019 been identified as a workplace phenomenon that arises from chronic unmanaged stress.
I think that companies, especially in this pandemic, it's made leaders recognize the humanity of their workers. Everything that we were talking about earlier, people feel isolated, they feel alone, they feel frightened. I think it's the role of the employer to bring out the best in their employees, not just for their own bottom line or to take care of clients, but because it's the right thing to do. The other thing is, is that a lot of the leaders in these organizations are just as burned out as the other employees within that organization. It becomes this vicious cycle.
The first step is to acknowledge that something is wrong. I call burnout the canary in the coal mine, when it comes to organizations. If you have burned out employees, then that's indicative that something is wrong in your culture.
Tanzina: I'm going to ask you two more questions. One is, how we can avoid this. We still, here at The Takeaway, we are socially distant, we are all-- I'm hosting the show from a coat closet. We've got producers, everybody zooms every day to talk about the show. Is there a way for employers to help those folks on the other side of the Zoom to help our team and our staff and our co-workers to manage given the fact that we can't be together in person?
Geri: It comes down to something very basic. Ask. Ask and listen to what your employees say, when it comes to what is it that they need. Some employees are very, very comfortable working remotely. For other employees, it's highly stressful because of the way their house is set up, or their children, or their dogs, or their cats, or all that type of thing, but ask what they need.
The other thing is, I would absolutely stop any electronics after a certain hour in the evening, let's say six o'clock, seven o'clock. It's so easy from home to "I'm here and the laptop is there, it's ten o'clock at night, I'm going to shoot out a quick email." It doesn't work like that. Leaders have to model the way for the rest of their employees.
Ask them what they want, limit their time in terms of electronics, and recognize that I think one of the reason why people are burned out on Zoom is because, unfortunately, just like in the workplace, many of the meetings are unnecessary. They don't really feel productive to the employees.
Tanzina: Last question for you. How do we avoid burnout from the beginning? Is that even possible in this world that we're living in right now?
Geri: I think it deals with being self-reflective and not denying it. Denial is a big, big part of burnout. In fact, the women who I've talked to in this round of interviews, their comments were, "We knew that I was having trouble sleeping or I wasn't feeling well, but I just ignored it." Your body is going to let you know when something is wrong, and listen to that.
The other thing is, as Brigid said, doing some deep breathing exercises for 10 seconds, and just really breathing and feeling, your diaphragm support will have a calming mechanism for it. I think the most important thing is, there's one little word that can prevent burnout. No, say "no." When people ask you to do more than what you think you can do, say "no," and say it without guilt.
This will help you create the boundaries. It also manages your expectations, because burnout is often viewed as a problem that occurs when your expectations of what should have happened didn't happen and the reality doesn't match those expectations. Setting up boundaries, and also practicing self-care in what ever way is best for you will also help you to avoid burnout.
Tanzina: Geri Puleo is the president and CEO of Change Management Solutions and creator of the "Burnout During Organizational Change Model." Brigid Schulte is director of the Better Life Lab at New America. Thanks to you both.
Geri: Thank you.
Brigid: Thank you.
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