We are approaching the two-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic and exhaustion is setting in, especially in the face of the Omicron variant. There has been research into the feeling of burnout among parents, caregivers and employees across various industries in the last year, and it tells us that stress levels and rates of burnout are increasing. Dr. Ari Zaretsky, Psychiatrist-in-Chief in Sunnybrook’s department of psychiatry, shares some insight into burnout: what it is, why the pandemic might be creating these feelings and how individuals can care for their well-being during these difficult times.
Burnout is understandable
Dr. Zaretsky says “it’s completely unsurprising” to hear feelings of burnout have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, with higher rates seen in 2021 than 2020 in some cases.
“I think the burnout is caused by prolonged disruption in normal life interactions and experiences in routines and connection in particular,” he says. “It’s prolonged and it’s unpredictable, with no definitive end in sight. We’re talking about an almost two-year disruption in normal human society, so that is a predictable reason why burnout would occur.”
It’s an unpredictable virus, and the “waves” of infections or emerging COVID-19 variants and their impact can create a feeling of helplessness in people, and a feeling that it might never end.
“I think when people have an expectation that something is going to be resolved in three months and then it’s not resolved in three months, it’s not resolved in one year, it’s not even resolved in 18 months, that takes a toll on people,” says Dr. Zaretsky.
What it means to feel ‘burnt out’
While to the average person, ‘burnout’ generally refers to a feeling of being overwhelmed, Dr. Zaretsky says the term originated with the work of American social psychologist Christina Maslach, who researched burnout in the workplace. According to Maslach’s research, there are generally three components to burnout.
“One is emotional exhaustion: a person has physical and emotional exhaustion,” says Dr. Zaretsky. “The second is depersonalization: someone feels like they’re a robot. They don’t care as much about their job. The final component has to do with a reduced sense of personal accomplishment.”
While it’s not a psychiatric condition, Dr. Zaretsky says there’s ongoing research looking into the relationship between burnout and depression.
“People may experience this subjective state of burnout at work and, as it gets worse, it becomes actual clinical depression,” he says.
Clinical depression will lead to people not being able to function in other areas of their lives, Dr. Zaretsky says, and burnout could lead to depression in individuals who haven’t experienced depression before. Another potential impact of increased feelings of burnout can be seen in the workforce: people will make career decisions based on burnout.
“They may actually leave the workplace or they may switch from one type of work to another based on a wish to avoid the burnout or remove themselves from an environment they believe is toxic in terms of causing burnout,” Dr. Zaretsky says.
Managing well-being in face of burnout
The feeling of burnout in the midst of the ongoing pandemic is real for many people. Dr. Zaretsky says while there is no simple answer for how to cope, there are some things that could be helpful in protecting your overall wellness right now.
He says managing expectations and understanding the nature of pandemics in a rational way might provide comfort.
“What I have found most helpful is to read about previous pandemics, so I know as a fact that this pandemic will not go on for the rest of my life,” he says. “It gives me some sense of hope, some sense there is an end point.”
Dr. Zaretsky also says it’s important to exert control over the areas of your life where you have control.
“Maintain your routines, maintain social connections and activities [while respecting Public Health guidelines],” he says. “Look after your self-care, look after your sleep, try to protect against overwork.”
They are simple things, but he says they can provide some control and offer protection to your mental health during an uncertain pandemic.
Dr. Zaretsky also stressed that special attention should be paid to reducing loneliness, which has been tragically intensified in our society because of the pandemic. “Loneliness and being alone are not the same thing. You can be lonely even if you are in a crowded environment, and you can feel connected and content when you are physically isolated,” he says. “That is where things like volunteering, connecting with and actually being in nature and interacting with pets can be particularly helpful and emotionally healing.”
And while some days it may feel as though we’ve gone back to March 2020, Dr. Zaretsky says it’s important to remind yourself that isn’t true. There are effective vaccines now, new antiviral drugs and we know much more now than we did back at the outset of the pandemic.
“And we know that pandemics do end.”
If you need help in an emergency, please call 911 or visit your local emergency department.
If you’re feeling like you’re in crisis or need somebody to talk to, please know that help is also available through community resources: