With most countries across the world impacted by covid-19, and many of the social support systems we rely on having been put on hold, it’s no wonder people are feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. For some, such feelings may ultimately culminate in burnout. “Before the covid-19 pandemic, burnout was, for the most part, considered a work-related issue. But in our research, we have identified burnout in people outside of the workplace, including those who are dealing with other life stressors, such as caring for loved ones full-time,” write Gabriela Tavella, research officer, School of Psychiatry, and Gordon Parker, scientia professor, UNSW in this piece.
Now, because of the pandemic, rates of burnout appear to be rising, especially since working from home means workers are often required to “do more with less” and be online and available 24/7, as well as home-school children.
The authors have been researching burnout to determine how to best identify and manage it. This research is outlined in a recently published book, Burnout: A guide to identifying burnout and pathways to recovery.
What is burnout? The most widely used burnout measure, the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), defines it by three criteria: exhaustion, loss of empathy towards service recipients or cynicism directed towards one’s job, reduced professional accomplishment.
But the MBI has been widely critiqued. One concern is that it overlooks key symptoms that are prominent in burnout and may be especially debilitating, such as cognitive dysfunction (which might include forgetting things or not being able to concentrate). Another concern, according to Tavella and Parker, is it was derived solely from researching burnout in those who work directly with patients or clients, such as health-care workers and those in other caring professions. Nuances of burnout that occur in other contexts may have been overlooked. The duo suggest one alternative: the Sydney Burnout Measure. This is a checklist of 34 burnout symptoms, with a high score on the measure indicative that you might have burnout.
“But it’s also possible to get a high score because of some other underlying condition that shares several of burnout’s symptoms, such as depression. To assess for this possibility, approaching a GP or mental health professional may be necessary,” write Tavella and Parker. These professionals will use their clinical experience to assess whether the symptoms you have are likely the consequence of burnout, or whether they could be due to some other mental health condition. Such clarification is important as different psychological conditions often require disorder-specific treatment strategies.
Once you know you have burnout, what can be done about it? External causes of burnout can come from your workplace (such as being overloaded, being overlooked for a promotion, working overtime) or from the home (including caring for multiple children and/or elderly parents, being primarily responsible for domestic duties). “A combination of both factors could be at play, where many are juggling working-from-home demands, financial difficulties and home-schooling children,” write the duo.
Seeking resolution from your boss or manager may be useful in overcoming some work stressors. Can they extend your deadlines, or arrange flexible working hours around your child-rearing responsibilities? For factors in the home, asking family members to assist in juggling tasks, or researching whether some tasks can be outsourced (for example, can you hire a cleaner or a babysitter once a week?) may be of use.
When escaping these stressors isn’t possible, you may have to bring on some de-stressing strategies to help curb your burnout symptoms. Things like exercise, meditation and practising mindfulness are consistently nominated by our study participants as most helpful. Such practices not only help you to distract and relax, but also have proven biological benefits, such as reducing levels of stress hormones throughout the body. Consulting a mental health professional can also be useful here, as they will have several specific cognitive strategies to help reduce anxiety and stress.