When the pandemic hit, our lives changed drastically as we adjusted to new ways of working, coped with fewer support systems and were bombarded by stress and worry. It’s only natural that, at some point, we all started to feel exhausted. While the cost of adapting to added responsibilities looked different for everyone, some people may have experienced burnout without even realizing it. Two psychologists weigh in on how to spot the symptoms of burnout and what you can do to help prevent it.
What is burnout?
Burnout is the result of prolonged stress that comes from taking on more roles and responsibilities—at work and in your personal life—than you can handle. It can leave you feeling like you unexpectedly have no more gas left in your tank, says Toronto-based psychologist Nicole McCance. Getting through the day will feel more tiring than usual and completing simple tasks might require more energy and motivation.
It’s worth noting that burnout isn’t a medical diagnosis with a clear set of symptoms to look for. But McCance says that in most people, burnout typically shows up as exhaustion or feeling depleted even after a good night’s rest. “I’ve had clients tell me that when they wake up for work, they’re already fantasizing about the end of the day,” she says.
Why does it happen?
The World Health Organization describes burnout as the result of chronic stress in the workplace. If unaddressed, it can lead to symptoms like exhaustion, negative feelings towards your job and reduced performance at work.
Burnout has a quantitative aspect to it, says Toronto psychologist Eliana Cohen, that can come from taking on too much work. But there’s also a qualitative aspect that has to do with how you feel about your job: Some people find themselves motivated and excited by complex, consuming projects. “If you have a sense of mastery and you feel you’re doing great at your job, you’re not going to burn out,” Cohen says. “People start to burn out when they hit walls.” If you don’t find your job meaningful and that sense of fulfillment isn’t provided by other areas in your life, McCance says that work can become taxing and can contribute to burnout.
Although the WHO frames burnout only as a workplace phenomenon, psychologists say it can extend to your personal life as well. Having a number of roles—parent, child, friend, caregiver, etc.—and trying to juggle each of their responsibilities can take a toll mentally and emotionally. If work is one reason you’re feeling overwhelmed, for example, but you’re also worried about finances, your kids and taking care of elderly parents, that combined stress can be enough over time to cause burnout.
How do I know I’m burned out?
If you wake up exhausted in the morning, have brain fog, feel irritable or find it hard to concentrate during the day, you could have burnout. You might also find it hard to motivate yourself to do activities you usually enjoy, like meeting friends or going for walks. One of the easiest ways to spot burnout, says McCance, is that you don’t feel like yourself—while you might have once looked forward to the start of your day, it may now require extra effort to get things done.
That’s not the same as regular fatigue, which you can treat with sleep and rest. With burnout, fatigue and exhaustion don’t go away. “Sometimes clients will tell me that they feel tense, or their body feels really heavy,” said McCance. “Burnout is a different level of exhaustion that you can’t shake off.”
Cohen adds that burnout shares some of the same symptoms as depression, such as listlessness, fatigue, irritability and difficulty staying motivated. A psychologist will be able to spot the difference between the two, but depression tends to come with prolonged feelings of sadness that burnout doesn’t.
How has the pandemic impacted burnout?
The pandemic in some ways set the stage for burnout: It came with added responsibilities at home and worries about not getting sick, while removing our regular outlets to de-stress, like meeting friends for dinner or going to the gym. For some people, says Cohen, that resulted in “horrible levels of stress.” And for others, there’s a listlessness that settled in—sometimes described as pandemic fatigue—because many of us were isolated at home and had little stimulation.
“That kind of chaos mixed in with inertia and the stress and uncertainty of the unknown is a lot to take in for a nervous system,” Cohen says. And so pandemic fatigue has made us more vulnerable to burnout because we’re already dealing with fear and anxiety. Any cognitive task on top of that, she says, can exhaust us more easily.
What can I do to prevent and deal with burnout?
Eating healthy, getting a good night’s sleep and exercising are the most effective strategies when it comes to combatting burnout, says McCance. But if you don’t have the time to make drastic changes to your schedule, she suggests building positive habits that prioritize self-care. Sitting down for breakfast in the morning while listening to your favourite music or ending your night with warm tea are some simple ways to de-stress. “You might not have time to do yoga or meditate, but small changes can fit into almost anyone’s schedule,” she says. Cohen adds that reminding yourself of why you enjoy the things that you do can also help. Burnout can be both the cause and the result of you losing passion for the things that interest you—so a workshop or class can reignite your curiosity.
It’s also equally important to set boundaries where you can and turn down tasks you’re not able to complete without compromising your mental or physical health. “There’s a bit of momentum that can happen with burnout, where if you don’t catch it early, it can get worse,” says McCance. If you do start to notice symptoms of burnout, addressing it early, with the help of a therapist or practicing self-care on your own, is key.