Dr Martine Prunty
Updated: Oct 21, 2021
Do you think you might be suffering from COVID-19 burnout? Join the queue. Right behind me. I am head-in-the-sand done. Done with obsessively looking up the daily new locally acquired cases, done with looking up how many of these new cases were in the community for all or part of their infectious period, done with checking how many have been hospitalised, are in ICU, require ventilation, or have died. It’s all so boring!
Let’s quickly get up to speed on what is burnout, exactly, as opposed to just feeling fed up.
I’ve been reading this little gem of a book on Burnout by the esteemed Professor of Psychiatry and founder of the Black Dog Institute, Gordon Parker. Burnout has been a term used for some time, though it has not yet been named as possibly being a psychological disorder. Up until now, the symptoms of burnout have been 3 key factors:
2. Loss of empathy or feeling indifferent and disengaged
3. Compromised work performance meaning low productivity, procrastinating and making more mistakes than usual
Parker and his research team have further identified some additional symptoms and these are:
1. Impaired cognition like attention/memory problems and brain fog
2. Feeling anxious and/or depressed
3. Irritability and anger
4. Sleep disturbance, whether it be too much or too little
I’m sure a great many of us are exhausted by the thought of endless weeks of lockdown. I’m sure we feel overwhelmed that we have to manage our children’s schooling remotely whilst staying on top of our jobs and daily tasks as well. I have no doubt that it has affected our cognitive skills – who else is having trouble concentrating on remote learning tasks and then running into problems trying to teach that to our kids? I personally don’t recall the grades of 5, 3 and 1 being so difficult! As for cynicism – I am going to raise my hand on this one, reach for the stars and admit I have become a first-class “glass half empty” person in the current climate. There is no glass. And who could blame me (or you)? Things aren’t exactly looking promising that we will be “allowed out” any time soon, so it’s perfectly natural to have a sense of hopelessness about the next few months at least. When we feel this way it’s also common for us to have sleeping problems – some people may be sleeping way too much, and some not enough. I’m in the second camp. I get into bed and read until the book falls on my face, but then when I try to sleep PING! Eyes open. Where did my drowsiness go? Naturally then I am irritable in the morning and way more impatient with my children than I would like to be.
Some people might read this and think “surely this is depression. What’s the difference?” Let me explain, because yes, a lot of these symptoms are typical when someone is depressed and this can make diagnosis tricky for health professionals.
Burnout results from a combination of chronic, unrelenting, stressful working conditions and tends to occur in people who have high self-standards and a good dose of perfectionism. It doesn’t have to only appear in those in paid work though. Caring for the young, the old or the sick can also lead to burnout.
When someone is depressed, these symptoms tend to pervade every facet of their life and also tend to include symptoms like low self-esteem, hopelessness and helplessness and sometimes thoughts of self-harm or suicide. People with burnout aren’t always depressed, even if they’re not feeling particularly happy. But people with burnout are absolutely at risk of becoming depressed if they don’t learn to manage what has caused the burnout.
So what can you do if this is you? Obviously not everyone is in the position to quit their jobs and abandon the people we are caring for. Heck, a lot of people in Australia can’t even take a holiday because they are currently in lockdown!
Managing burnout is two-fold – firstly, analyse the parts of the conditions that contribute to burnout and recognise the bits you can change. Perhaps you are working much more than usual due to working from home and you can’t step away. Maybe you need to prioritise managing your diary so that you have room for other activities. You might need some help with learning how to be assertive with people in your team and put an end to saying “yes” when you mean “no”.
After you’ve made whatever changes you can, then it’s time to hold a mirror up in front of your face. Metaphorically. Do you need to:
· Prioritise exercise each day?
· Improve your diet?
· Recognise that sleep is important and improve your sleep hygiene practices?
· Reach out to a professional for some support?
· Learn to meditate or practice mindfulness
Aside from taking a break, the above suggestions rated the highest in being effective in relieving stress in Parker’s research. The irony is, perfectionists don’t tend to be particularly motivated to do any of these because they believe they will result in poorer performance. These people are high achievers and their high expectations have led to their success in many ways.
But now…things have to change. Lower your expectations you perfect-not perfect hard workers. Be kind to yourself, and each other. It’s not serving you anymore. Prioritise your health and your mental health and you just might find that these changes will have a far greater outcome for you in the longer term.