As a therapist, I have never worked with so many people who are on the brink of a burnout, feeling exhausted, disillusioned, even reconsidering their career choices, as I have seen over the last one year. From senior executives in corporate jobs who are thinking of gradual or semi-retirement, to young professionals who are wondering about changing career tracks, and others who have parked their purpose-driven goals and are working for the sake of financial security and stability. The pandemic year has changed our relationship not just with work, but also with how we feel about ourselves and life in general.
A large number of the people I have worked with, whether as part of therapy or training, say that while they have achieved career targets, they still feel numb, empty and drained. What I keep hearing is that people feel they have lost the ability to savour their achievements and, instead, feel the pressure to perform more and more. This is accompanied by a feeling of helplessness, and of being stuck. A consistent comment over the last two months is, “When I look back at last year, it feels like the work we would have possibly done in a couple of years was all squeezed into the last 12 months.”
Maybe the narrative of pandemic productivity did work initially. However, its cost is just beginning to be recognised. When work moved online in March 2020, it came with a certain insecurity about jobs, possible pay cuts. As a result, our security and stability felt compromised. It was accompanied by a sentiment that the pandemic would be short-lived. So, individuals and organisations moved quickly into “doing mode”. Agility and adaptation became the key themes.
Around this time, we stretched ourselves in order to maintain the status quo. This initial need to perform, and prove to ourselves that even amidst a pandemic we were capable of achieving our work targets, led to a blurring of work-home boundaries, and a cycle where we began to feel “wired and tired”. Maybe we didn’t realise this would escalate, in the long run, into burnout and collective fatigue.
For a year, our bodies have remained in a state of hyper-vigilance, uncertainty, and a constant “doing mode”. There has been no time to repair, even rest. Most people feel that by the time it’s Sunday evening and they begin to get into a state of rest, the reality of a heavy work week looming hits them. Not just that, operating from home is challenging when children are doing online schools, exams, and there has been a total collapse of all the structures that delineated our work and home spaces.
The pressure to perform is also deeply linked to the breakdown of our feedback mechanisms. In an office space, there are tiny moments daily when you receive feedback, either verbally or non-verbally, while talking to a colleague or boss. The watercooler conversations and team lunches provided a sort of cushioning when it came to dealing with the work stress, allowing people to disconnect and find small windows of human connection. Now we have lost those opportunities. A client tells me: “I miss the conversations I would have with my cab driver, the office boy who would get tea. Now I miss those moments, they were so precious. It feels so alone and on some days I wonder if working endlessly is a way of avoiding loneliness and realising there is nowhere to go to”.
My hypothesis is that from March- June, a large number of people will start recognising this burnout and take sabbaticals or leave of absence. Individuals and organisations need to step back and reexamine how they can build mechanisms and structures that allow them to feel centered and address this exhaustion. The months ahead symbolise a watershed moment— and the degree to which organisations will address the humane factor and build safeguards for employees’ emotional well-being will impact their future as well as that of our economy.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear, and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.