Coping with Burnout During the COVID-19 Pandemic

In the past few months, have you found yourself saying or thinking, “I just can’t do it anymore,” and you absolutely meant it? First of all, you’re not the only one. Second, you might really be experiencing burnout.

Burnout is a psychological state marked by exhaustion, a lack of enthusiasm and an inability to cope because of stress. This stress can come from work, your personal life, your consumption of media or a combination of these things.

“Our resources start to get depleted, we can no longer find the energy and we don’t find the same level of satisfaction or meaning,” says UNC Health psychiatrist Nadia Charguia, MD. “We are emptying our buckets faster than we can fill our buckets.”

Sound familiar?

“No one is not at risk these days,” Dr. Charguia says. Because of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, many people no longer have boundaries between the personal and the professional: Work bleeds into home and vice versa, and children at home need constant care. It’s never-ending.

Everyone is going through a collective trauma. “There’s this constant exposure to grief and loss because we’re not able to revert to how life has been, how we wish it would be,” Dr. Charguia adds.

Here’s what to know to start feeling better.

Signs and Symptoms of Burnout

Burnout has physical and emotional manifestations, says Dr. Charguia, who is director of the Taking Care of Our Own Program at UNC Health, an initiative that helps healthcare workers with burnout and other mental health needs.

People suffering from burnout might be more irritable, angry or frustrated than normal, and they might have an increased need for sleep or an inability to get restful sleep, she says. Jaw clenching and teeth grinding are also potential signs; that’s why sometimes dentists are the first to recognize the signs of burnout.

The constant state of stress that leads to burnout is associated with higher blood pressure and less motivation to exercise, which can lead to weight gain and related health problems.

If you’re experiencing long-term burnout, it could harm your relationships with your partner, children or friends, because you might lack patience or energy for them. Your performance at work might diminish, which can cause strife with co-workers and lead to negative performance reviews.

In severe cases, burnout can progress to depression. A big warning sign is if you start withdrawing from others and find it difficult to find motivation for any activities, at home or work, Dr. Charguia says.

How to Cope with Burnout

If you’re experiencing burnout, you can take steps to feel better, even as the pressures of life—and this extraordinary time—continue.

First, Dr. Charguia suggests asking yourself: “What does it take for me to feel more whole? What does it take to replenish those energy reserves, those emotional reserves?”

Maybe you need more sleep or some time away from the office (virtual or not). Maybe you need help with your kids or to eat healthy food and move your body. It’s possible you need all of those things, but it’s important to start with something small and realistic. If you try to tackle it all at once, you’ll only add to your burnout.

Identify one small step to start to take better care of yourself, Dr. Charguia says.

This step could vary widely, from doing a short yoga video online each day to asking your boss whether an upcoming deadline could be more flexible. Maybe your spouse or a neighbor could take the kids for 20 minutes around lunch so you can go for a solo walk.

From there, you can choose another small step. What matters is that you do it with purpose and meaning, Dr. Charguia says. So if you tell yourself you can take a half-hour at night to watch a new show on Netflix, do it, without guilt and without checking your email or cleaning your house. Slowly, these small steps can lead to significant relief.

If you want assistance dealing with burnout and its effects on your life, a mental health professional can help. You can view seeing a therapist as another step to self-care.

“Our society doesn’t necessarily honor the need to take care of ourselves, so we need to give ourselves that permission,” Dr. Charguia says.

Do you think you might be experiencing burnout or depression? Talk to your doctor. If you need a doctor, find one near you.