January can suck the wind from our sails in the best of years, but this is not just any January – it’s our very first pandemic January. This doesn’t necessarily mean it will be worse than ever. Life can be gloriously contrary and you might end up having a pleasant, cozy month. But there’s no denying that, even among those who aren’t grieving or recovering from an infection, COVID burnout is real and as contagious as the virus itself. No one should beat themselves up about feeling fatigued right now.
Burnout was already doing a swift trade before the pandemic came along, steadily spreading as technology allowed everyone to carry their inboxes in their pockets. The term was even added to the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases in 2019, listed as the result of “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. Symptoms include a sense of, “energy depletion or exhaustion... increased mental distance from one’s job… negativism or cynicism related to one’s job” and feeling less efficient and effective at doing said job. That wading-through-treacle sensation feels painfully familiar right now.
COVID burnout, however, is a new version, peculiar to these uncharted pandemic times. 2020 was the year in which our homes became our offices, our schools, and at times felt like our prisons. The lines between work and leisure blurred, without even our daily commutes to bookend business hours. Uncertainty ruled, and the grim compulsion to stay on top of coronavirus-related news felt like a full-time job in itself. But pandemic burnout is too novel to warrant its own statistics or entries in medical books. The Office of National Statistics can tell us, however, that the proportion of adults reporting psychological distress jumped from 24.3 per cent in 2019 to 37.8 per cent in April 2020, and that sleep problems increased by 9 per cent last year, with young adults and women most likely to report worse wellbeing.
No matter how exhausted you are, or how impossible and unappealing your to-do list may seem, be armed with the knowledge that you are not necessarily doomed to stagnate until conditions improve. Positive steps can be taken at any time to fend off burnout and feel better. And once you’re out on the other side, it’s entirely possible that you will be stronger for your struggles – a phenomenon called posttraumatic growth.
One of the greatest challenges of imposed isolation has been feeling cut off from friends and colleagues. When life is overwhelming, it’s easy to let efforts to connect slip. But Dr. Steven Southwick, professor of psychiatry at Yale Medical School, says that maintaining relationships should be a top priority right now. “The fundamental need to belong is hardwired into our nervous system,” he says. “In fact, from a neurobiological standpoint, exclusion, rejection or isolation can activate the sympathetic [fight or flight] nervous system just like any fear response. Adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol, all of these stress hormones can get activated purely by social isolation.” It turns out, he says, that some of the same areas of the brain that are activated during physical pain are also activated during social pain.
On the other hand, says Southwick, positive social support can quieten the fear response. “When people are cooperating with one another, you can see the activation of reward centers in the brain,” he explains. Social connectedness releases oxytocin, too, which also “quiets anxiety through a variety of mechanisms.”
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