Feeling burned out? You’re not alone. When the COVID-19 pandemic closed businesses and urged employees to stay home, well–being plummeted. In this Psychiatric Times article, Mindpath Health’s Rashmi Parmar, MD, explains how burnout is affecting the workforce.
Feeling burned out? You are not alone. When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered businesses and sequestered employees at home, wellbeing plummeted to lows not seen since the Great Recession of 2008. Only 46.5% of Americans described their lives as “thriving” in April 2020, a 15% decline from before the pandemic. By December, these rates had rebounded slightly to just 48%. Clearly, the stress and worry of 2020 continued to take its toll.
But rather than becoming distracted and listless, workers remained highly engaged at work, with employee engagement rates hitting record highs in 2020 and ending the year 1% higher on average than in 2019. Gallup has studied the relationship between well-being and engagement since 2009 and described COVID workplace data trends “truly like nothing Gallup has ever seen.” Traditionally, its research suggests wellbeing and work engagement have a reciprocal, additive effect on one another.
Psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals can play a critical role in these discussions, both in helping workers adjust to the new normal and in advising businesses on how to provide support. The irony, however, is that medical professionals tend to experience high workplace burnout rates themselves. As we work to heal burnout in the workplace, it is important to heed our own advice and avoid the same pitfalls as our patients.
What is burnout?
Burnout is described as emotional and physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged periods of stress. The World Health Organization (WHO) describes it as, “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Mentally, burnout is experienced as a feeling of overwhelming exhaustion, cynicism, and detachment toward one’s job; a feeling of ineffectiveness; and a lack of accomplishment. Physical symptoms include fatigue, body aches, headaches, gastrointestinal symptoms, appetite changes, increased susceptibility to common infections, and sleep disruption.
The vision of a haggard parent often paints the clearest picture of what burnout looks and feels like. For mothers in a 2018 study, burnout involved an underlying current of fear. This could include feelings that they were not good enough, a fear of giving up control over things, or a discontinuity of sense of self. Burned-out mothers often did not want to be around their children, developed an aversion to everyday chores, felt like they were working on autopilot, and had thoughts of either killing themselves or abandoning their children. This led to feelings of distress, self-hate, loneliness, shame, and guilt.
The effects of burnout are not limited to the workplace. It often spills over to affect relationships with family and friends. When supervisors are critical of employees who are also mothers, these women tend to be harsher toward their children as well as more withdrawn. Burnout also tends to increase rates of alcohol and substance abuse. Plus, burnout is a predictor of 12 somatic diseases, which include coronary heart disease, headaches, respiratory diseases, and mortality under the age of 45 years old.
Burnout among physicians
While all occupations have the potential for burnout, individuals who work in health care—especially physicians—are particularly prone to it. Physicians tend to work in a culture of self-reliance and independence, and it is common for them to feel they cannot show any sign of weakness. As a result, they are often the least likely to seek treatment for mental health issues. Psychiatrists experience their own unique form of burnout, one that comes from stretching themselves to help people gripped by mental illness.
Burnout in COVID-19’s new normal
Employees may not be ready to let go of the work-life balance they discovered through flexible work conditions. They do not want to return to spending long hours commuting to and from work. They may welcome the trust and independence that comes with remote work and be eager to prove they deserve it. Others, however, may thirst for the structure and company of working in an office. They may find it difficult to disengage from work at home, or they may prefer in-person team building opportunities that teleconferencing simply cannot provide. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and employers would do well to study what led to the high levels of engagement in 2020.