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How to Deal With COVID-19 Burnout at Work

4 suggestions on ways to recognize and manage the ill effects

By Nancy Collamer

Do you feel stressed, anxious or depressed at work these days? You’re not alone.

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Credit: Adobe

A recent survey conducted by FlexJobs and Mental Health America found that 75% of people have experienced burnout at work, with 40% saying they’ve felt it during the pandemic specifically. And according to a July MetLife report on the mental health of the U.S. workforce, two in three employers said they expect a mental health crisis in the U.S. within three years.

Between job-loss worries, work from home challenges and feeling overworked, it’s easy to understand why the fallout from the pandemic is taking such a toll.

As one 61-year-old executive at a consulting firm recently told me, “My pay was reduced twenty percent, our client base has dwindled and yet I’m expected to beat last year’s revenue numbers. I’m doing my best, but the pressure is really starting to wear me down.”

If you’re worried about asking for flexibility, test the waters with what Reynolds calls “micro-asks.”

Adam Goldberg, CEO and founder of Torchlight, a provider of employee-caregiver support solutions, recently said: “Employees are burnt out, wrestling with their own mental health challenges brought on by the companion crises of COVID-19 and caregiving.”

Unfortunately, unaddressed job burnout can have serious consequences for both your health and your career. And with no end to the pandemic in sight, now is the time to take preventive action.

For advice on how to recognize and manage the ill effects of burnout, I turned to two experts: Brie Reynolds, career development manager at FlexJobs and Tracey Ferstler, assistant VP and head of return to health for MetLife.

Here are their four recommendations:

1. Acknowledge the problem. “The first step in managing burnout is to acknowledge that you’re dealing with it,” said Ferstler. “If not, you can end up in a full-blown mental health crisis.”

Notably, the MetLife study found that many workers underestimate the seriousness of their struggles with burnout.

While only 30% of employees said “they feel burned out” at work, 64% reported feeling the symptoms of burnout as defined by the World Health Organization. Those symptoms include feeling: emotionally and/or physically drained; mentally checked out at work; excessive pressure to succeed and the need to hide personal concerns while at work.

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If you’re concerned about your mental health, an online mental health screen can help you evaluate if you’re mildly stressed or experiencing the symptoms of a more serious condition.

You can take a free, confidential and anonymous online mental health screen at the website of Mental Health America, a community-based nonprofit.

“Tests like these can help validate your feelings and allow you to see that you’re not alone,” says Reynolds. “It’s important to recognize that many people are feeling more anxious than normal right now, even people whose lives haven’t been significantly altered by the pandemic.”

2. Look into employer-provided mental health benefits. Some companies, especially larger ones, are offering mental health benefits that they didn’t provide before the pandemic. These include telemedicine screenings, employee assistance programs and stress reduction programs.

“You might be surprised by what you’ll find,” says Ferstler. “So, whether your company is big or small, check into what is being offered.”

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If your employer doesn’t provide assistance, look into services offered through local nonprofit agencies, veterans organizations or your state office of mental health.

3. Establish firm work/life boundaries. When you work from home, it’s critical to set healthy boundaries to keep the stress and demands of work from interfering with home life and vice versa. Reynolds offered a few suggestions on how to do that:

Try to use or create a dedicated workspace, she says. Working from a home office with a door that can be shut during work hours is best. If that’s not possible, you can create the illusion of a dedicated home office with a curtain or even by placing tape on the floor.

Focus on work tasks before personal tasks, especially in the morning, says Reynolds. Then, later in the day when you need a break, you can squeeze in a personal task, or perhaps some exercise or something fun.

“The constant interweaving of life and work tasks gets really tiring,” warns Reynolds. “If you're focused and efficient, especially early on, you won’t have to work into the night to finish what you could have completed during the day.”

Reynolds also says it’s important to clarify expectations with your work team. Don’t create unnecessary stress for yourself by assuming your manager or co-worker expects you to be available 24/7.  Have a conversation to set realistic and humane expectations and address any potential issues before they become a problem.

Finally, Reynolds advises, turn off email and work notifications when you're not on the job. A recent University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign study found that the pings and buzzes of smartphone alerts causes an array of unhealthy effects, including insomnia and increased job stress.

“You shouldn't be available all the time,” says Reynolds. “It’s not healthy and you need to give your brain the space to recharge at the end of a long day.”

4. Ask for flexibility. Flexible scheduling can help you better balance your personal and professional responsibilities.

Unfortunately, because of the current economic uncertainty, many people are reluctant to ask for accommodations right now. “People are just relieved to have a job,” says Reynolds. “They don’t want to rock the boat.”

If you’re worried about asking for flexibility, test the waters with what Reynolds calls “micro-asks.”

In other words, instead of asking if you can regularly work offline three mornings a week, request the same arrangement for a time-limited project, such as a critical two-week assignment. Explain that the flexibility will benefit your employer by allowing you uninterrupted time to focus and be more productive.

If all goes well, your manager might be open to a more permanent flexible arrangement.

Photograph of Nancy Collamer
Nancy Collamer, M.S., is a semi-retirement coach, speaker and author of Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passions During Semi-Retirement. You can now download her free workbook called 25 Ways to Help You Identify Your Ideal Second Act on her website at MyLifestyleCareer.com (and you'll also receive her free bi-monthly newsletter). Read More
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