As many Americans are all too aware, job-related burnout was a relevant issue before the onset of COVID-19. A recent Google search of the word “burnout” instantly produced 80.8 million results, many dating to before the pandemic. The term “job burnout?” That produced a staggering 102 million results — again, many of them pre-pandemic.
But COVID-19 and its effects, multiple studies and countless anecdotes show, have dramatically magnified the problem. Whether working from home, in the office or on a jobsite, many of us have been working longer hours and taking less time off during the pandemic. And the effects are showing.
According to a study by the job-search site FlexJobs and Mental Health America, 75% of employees have experienced burnout at work, “with 40% saying they’ve experienced burnout specifically during the pandemic.”
Causes of the syndrome vary.
Many working from home and juggling the demands of work, parenting, and taking care of their home and pets feel a need to constantly be “on” to validate their value to their employer. A November 2020 study by staffing firm Robert Half showed that almost 7 in 10 professionals (68%) working from home extended work hours into their weekends, while 45% of remote employees reported regularly working more than eight hours a day. Other surveys indicate numbers much higher.
For those working in the office, longer workdays may be at least partly attributable to workplace restrictions and the additional steps required to comply with pandemic-related requirements.
And then there are all the health and economic concerns: Am I going to be able to keep my job? Am I going to be OK? Is my family going to be OK?
What Is Job Burnout?
It’s helpful to know that job burnout is not a medical issue. As defined by the Mayo Clinic, it is a “special type of work-related stress – a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”
Other symptoms may include:
- Becoming increasingly cynical or critical at work
- Excessive procrastination
- Irritability or impatience with co-workers or clients
- Lack of energy and productivity
- Difficulty concentrating
- Lack of satisfaction with work achievements
- Disillusionment with your job
- Self-medication through food, alcohol or substances
- Irregular sleep habits
- Unexplained headaches, digestive issues or other physical maladies.
In 2019, the World Health Organization officially recognized burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.”
Pandemic Work Hours
According to a study by financial technology startup Self Financial, more than a quarter of the American working population has been working an extra five to six hours per week during the pandemic. An international study by researchers at Harvard and New York University and published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in July 2020 showed the overall average workload to be four hours per week.
The chief economist for ADP, Nela Richardson, cited two reasons in an interview with Employee Benefit News: “First, the global workforce was understandably concerned about their jobs after so much loss. Second, workers had to take on more responsibilities because there was a downsizing in their colleagues, so there was a real increase in workload.”
In addition, the convenience of having workplace technology available at home makes work constantly and readily available.
“The traditional 9-to-5 doesn’t make sense today because there’s this ecosystem where we’re working all of the time from home, and there are more interruptions whether they are work, personal or family-related,” Gartner researcher Alexia Cambon told USA Today in March 2021. “We need to put up some guardrails because it’s not good for our mental health, as trying to strike a balance is becoming tough.”
What You Can Do
In a February 2021 article, “How to Beat Burnout – Without Quitting Your Job,” the New York Times suggested four ways to beat burnout:
- Practice kindness. Whether directed toward yourself or others, “small, deliberate acts of compassion may help reduce feelings of burnout” and make you feel better about yourself.
- Recharge and reach out. A Texas teacher interviewed by the Times found keeping a journal and focusing on gratitude helped, as did sharing her difficulties with co-workers and friends.
- Lighten your load. Take time to go out to dinner once in a while. Exercise regularly. Meditate. And if there’s an opportunity to offload tasks that may be re-assigned to someone less busy, do so.
- Ask for help. Paraphrasing a Los Angeles employment lawyer, the Times notes: “Workplace cultures vary, but employers are legally bound to offer some form of protection for people who might be suffering from burnout.”
Increasingly, employers are motivated to help by more than legal obligation. As my Alera Group teammate Andrea Davis noted in a previous post, “Mental Health Awareness Month’s Timely Arrival”:
“One of the positive developments during the pandemic has been heightened employer awareness and sensitivity to their employees’ mental health. Many have responded by providing well-being webinars and related materials, and by encouraging employees to use resources such as employee assistance programs (EAPs) and available time off.”
Harvard Business Review (HBR) wholeheartedly endorses the idea of using PTO and provides some useful tips in the recent article “We All Really Need a Vacation. Here’s How to Make the Most of It.” HBR’s tips:
- Plan ahead if you can.
- Take at least a week.
- Go somewhere — anywhere.
- Prepare your colleagues and clients early.
- Put your phone down.
- Don’t forget one-off personal days.
You can gain additional insights to this topic by viewing the Alera Group webinar “Managing Stress and Burnout,” featuring Dr. Myra Altman of Modern Health. Recorded in October 2020, the webinar is available by clicking on the link below.
About the Author
Gretchen Day, MPH, MCHES
VP of Health Innovations and Advanced Strategies
Through her role at Alera Group, Gretchen Day satisfies her passion for public health by working with businesses and their employees to improve workplace culture and influence change in their healthcare delivery system. Ultimately, her goal is to help individuals access better quality healthcare, while advancing innovative thinking to bring about change in the way healthcare is delivered. Gretchen earned her Master of Public Health degree from the Penn State College of Medicine and Master Certified Health Education Specialist certification from the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing.