We are heading into year three since the COVID pandemic hit, the world shut down, and work as we knew it changed.
One term we heard a lot during the height of the pandemic was “burn out”. But, three years later the term hasn’t dwindled. If anything, it’s increased with the slew of layoffs being reported daily on the news. The most recent layoffs have hit the media industries, tech industries, and hospitality the greatest. In December 2022, approximately 5.9 million Americans left the workforce either because they were laid off or quit voluntarily according to the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“I think the term burn out became more popular during the pandemic because we collectively experienced additional stressors: between worrying about our own and our loved one’s physical health due to COVID, the rise in political tensions, and the increased awareness to racial inequities,” says Janelle Falcon, behavioral health specialist, community health for Baptist Health South Florida. “We all began to wear many more hats than we were used to, while our coping strategies felt more limited (i.e., social isolation, working out at the gym) and I think many people felt stuck.”
Though the risk of COVID infection has dwindled, employees are still dealing with a lot of added stressors such as job insecurity, working with a smaller staff, and trying to keep up with high demands.
A lot of things can cause burn out, but one of the simplest ways to describe it, Falcon says, is that “it’s a prolonged period of stress that feels never ending, as if it will never get better. It’s also important to mention that burn out is not a diagnosis.”
If you’re unsure if you’re experiencing burn out, here are a few common physical and emotional symptoms:
- increased feelings of irritability
- feeling overwhelmed
- increased fatigue
- gastrointestinal symptoms
- sleep disturbances
- feelings of hopelessness
- possibility for increased use of alcohol and/or substance
However, “It’s also important to note, just because someone is noticing these signs in themselves does not mean we can chalk it up to burn out,” adds Falcon. “There’s a lot of overlap with other disorders such as anxiety and depression, which warrant speaking to a supportive professional to determine the best course of action,” she says.
In addition, burn out and anxiety can have some crossover symptoms. And, experiencing burn out can also lead to anxiety, but they are two separate concerns. “Think of burn out as a feeling of exhaustion due to a situation that you feel is never ending and think of anxiety as a feeling of dread in anticipation of a bad outcome,” says Falcon.
There is no timeframe to pinpoint how long burnout can last. Falcon says, “I would say it depends on how intense the person is feeling the symptoms of burn out, and what actions they’re taking to relieve the burn out.”
Seek Medical Attention
If you feel like you are experiencing burn out, you should seek medical attention or speak to your primary healthcare professional as burnout can lead to permanent health risks if untreated. “Prolonged burn out can lead to other mental health concerns,” says Falcon.
Burn out can also be a sign that something else is going on, which is why it’s always important to seek medical attention. “Oftentimes a medical condition may be a primary factor in an individual’s mood,” says Falcon, “and it is important to rule out any health issues before beginning appropriate treatment. Primary care physicians can also help get you connected to the right type of specialized care.”
There is a long list of possible symptoms that can describe burn out. “In addition,” says Falcon, “burn out can increase the risk for many health concerns as well. The more information your doctor has, they more equipped they will be to help you.”
Research shows that burn out can lead to increased risk of various health problems including:
- Digestive problems
- Muscle tension and pain
- Heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
- Memory and concentration impairment
- Weakened immune system
- Type 2 diabetes
“If someone finds themselves struggling with symptoms of burn out, they should reach out to a mental health professional for further assessment,” says Falcon. “Many symptoms of burn out have overlap with other concerns that should be assessed by a qualified professional. You’ll be able to discuss your concerns with a supportive professional and come up with a plan on how to move forward.”
One resource available, is the Baptist Health Care on Demand app, which has mental health counselors, psychiatrists, and medical professionals ready to speak and address your concerns.
How to Ease Burn Out
Now, if you’re experiencing burn out and wondering how you can make yourself feel better or how you can best cope with it, we have some tips for you. If leaving your current job—that is causing the burn out—is not an immediate option, there are other things that can help.
Falcon suggests six things that can help you with burnout. They are:
- Establish your best self-care routine, regardless of feeling burnt out, by thinking about what brings you calm and joy.
- Speak to your employer, ask what resources they offer. Many employers offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAP’s) as part of their benefits.
- Set boundaries at work by scheduling regular breaks (lunch away from your desk) and setting a schedule.
- Address your work/life balance, don’t check emails (or work phone) during “off” hours.
- Reduce the amount of multitasking at work to help reduce the feeling of stress.
- Try finding meaning and a sense of fulfillment in your work. This is something you may be able to address with your employer also.
Employers Can Also Help their Employees Deal with Burn Out
From an employer standpoint, don’t be afraid to speak to your employees,” says Falcon. “Encourage your employees to take their breaks, especially to use their lunch time accordingly. Create a comfortable and safe environment for your employees and encourage feedback and open conversations. Foster teamwork, to create the ability within your employees to support one another.”
Right after the pandemic hit, companies started to see what was often referred to as “The Great Resignation.” This was the result of employees dealing with burn out throughout the first part of the global pandemic. “I believe burn out has been a significant contributor to The Great Resignation,” says Falcon. “When we think of occupational burn out, we think of a person becoming pessimistic about their work, not feeling motivated or satisfied, etc. What happens often is the symptoms of burn out are not confined to the work setting but start to bleed into personal life and impact their relationships and other areas of their lives. I believe people found themselves wanting a positive change that employers were not equipped to provide, and it was compounded by the pandemic, the political climate, and racial and gender inequalities.”