Even before COVID-19, burnout was always a thing .
The World Health Organization officially labeled it as an occupational phenomenon in 2019. Experts estimate the condition costs businesses somewhere between $125 and $190 billion every year.
In an article for Harvard Business Review, Eric Garten asserted that burnout is a problem with a company, not the employee. This is absolutely true in that, while work always will involve some degree of stress, businesses have to create the right physical conditions that minimize extreme anxieties and overwork. Although some of us are more prone to cope with stress better than others, it’s not necessarily the fault of the workers if they’re having issues.
But burnout doesn’t necessarily just happen only because of stress. It often is the consequence of many compounding stressors: Juggling new relationships or dealing with old ones that are crumbling, caring for kids, trying to keep finances in order, handling existing health worries, etc.
Thanks to the pandemic, there are a whole bunch of new stressors added to the usual list: Making sure the kids stay quiet during work Zooms or just trying to find space to decompress, political mayhem, trying to be both parent and teacher…and the hits just keep on coming.
A nation of unwell workers
Unsurprisingly, the number of people suffering from depression has tripled during the pandemic. Research led by Jiaqi Xiong further indicates that, more broadly, the virus crisis “is associated with highly significant levels of psychological distress that, in many cases, would meet the threshold for clinical relevance.”
So even in normal circumstances, approaching burnout as a product only of the work environment doesn’t present a clear picture of why someone is overwhelmed. Providing good support requires seeing the bigger picture of what’s happening in an individual’s life. It’s only when we view all of the factors someone is dealing with that it’s possible to create truly effective health and mental wellness management plan that taps into the best resources.
Burnout won’t end with the vaccine(s)
Employers, workers, and the general public also need to acknowledge that many of the effects of COVID-19 likely aren’t going to disappear overnight, even once people go back to the traditional office. For example, although some economists are hopeful about a quicker economic recovery, others don’t predict a return to “normal” conditions until the start of 2024. New systems and ways of operating that emerge as a direct result of the pandemic might be beneficial for this recovery, but it still will take people time to get used to all the massive shifts in thinking and doing. Of course, there is no timeline for the grief around lost loved ones. Lastly, the World Health Organization asserts that the pandemic has disrupted critical mental health services in 93 percent of countries worldwide. The long-term effects that result because of the lack of good, consistent mental health care (e.g., worsening substance abuse issues) might linger for decades.
Burnout likely is going to be an even bigger deal than it used to be well into the future. Fighting it will require full collaboration across a myriad of systems and, in some cases, a complete restructuring of those systems. Maintaining the big picture view of what people are dealing with and how it all interconnects, rather than pointing the finger at any single contributing factor, will offer the best direction on how to move forward for individual and collective best interests.