Dealing with burnout

Burnout is increasing due to the pandemic, both professionally and personally.

A man looking visibly stressed.
Photo: Pexels/Nathan Cowley.

Maybe you've recently heard someone say, “I am so burned out!” Or you have said or felt it yourself. But what is burnout?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” The World Health Organization describes burnout as a work-related phenomena that includes three parts: exhaustion, detachment and pessimism, which should not be applied to other areas of life.

Some warning signs of burnout include interruptions in sleep, upset stomach, headaches, catching more colds, gaining weight, body aches and pains. Another sign of burnout may be an increase in drug or alcohol use as a coping mechanism.

Prevalence of burnout in the United States has increased since 2019, especially due to the pandemic. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2021 Work and Well-Being Survey:

  • 79% of people reported experiencing work-related stress.
  • 36% of people reported cognitive weariness.
  • 32% of people reported emotional exhaustion.
  • 44% of people reported physical fatigue.

Most people connect burnout with work situations. For example, there are many studies on burnout related to specific occupations such as healthcare professionals, teachers, mental health professionals, human services employees, frontline workers and first responders. Burnout can also affect those in other roles, though, such as childcare providers, family caregivers, and parents. The burden of sustained chronic stress related to life in a pandemic can lead to burnout. In particular, researchers are beginning to recognize and study burnout in parents, who are experiencing a tremendous increase in demands. There are daily interruptions to family routines like illness or quarantines within the family unit or school, or childcare closings due to staff illness.  When parents feel stressed, kids feel stressed. This can lead to an increase in children's negative or acting out behaviors, and this comes full circle, adding to parental stress. These factors all contribute to parental burnout which can result in physical and emotional exhaustion, feeling like a failure as a parent, and being emotionally unavailable to children.  

Now more than ever, it is a good time to remember the importance of self-care strategies, which can help counteract signs and symptoms of burnout.

  • For physical exhaustion: Include physical activity and healthy eating as part of your daily routine. Work to improve your sleep habits with a goal to get seven to eight hours a night. Squeeze in mindful moments throughout the day to help you maintain balance. Stop, breathe in and breathe out.
  • For feelings of detachment: Reach out to family and friends to maintain your much-needed social support system. If you can’t visit in person, visit on the phone or a virtual call, send emails, text messages or chats. Work on rekindling friendships that may have drifted during the past year or so. Your friends may need the connection as much as you do.
  • For pessimism/negativity: Find time in each day to do things that bring you joy like reading, dancing, or watching sports or your favorite funny show. If you are a parent, shift your focus on the enjoyable moments of being with your children: laughing together, being silly, cuddling and developing family memories.

If you recognize signs of burnout, whether at work or at home, it is important to find healthy ways to cope. Ignoring the signs of burnout only makes it worse and could lead to long-term adverse effects such as depression or other chronic conditions. Make an appointment with your healthcare provider and come up with a strategy to deal with any physical symptoms you may be experiencing. In addition, you may find it helpful to explore options such as counseling or therapy which may help you cope with your mental state.

MSU Extension also offers a variety of programs to help people improve physical and mental health, with a focus in areas including managing chronic conditions, mindfulness, anger management, caring for the caregiver and improving sleep.

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