Feeling like a zombie

More than a year-and-a-half into the COVID-19 pandemic, burnout seems to be on everyone’s lips. Many of us didn’t realise what had hit us when we scrambled to adjust to the sudden upheaval of the workplace, switching to remote work with little or no preparation, or deemed an essential worker and asked to continue business-as-usual in highly unusual circumstances. The frequent start-stop nature of restrictions did not help.

But what is “burnout”? The word was coined in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. He coined it to describe the fall-out from the severe stress and high ideals in what we call the “helping” professions. Our doctors and nurses, for example, who sacrifice themselves for others, often end up being “burned out” – exhausted, listless, and unable to cope.

Today the term is not only used for these helping professions. It can affect anyone, from stressed-out career-driven people and celebrities to overworked employees and housewives. Surprisingly, experts don’t always agree on what burnout actually is. This has serious implications: if it is not exactly clear what burnout is and how it can be diagnosed, it is difficult to assess how common it is.

Burnout starts with a lack of energy, then gradually building into a sense of exhaustion. Suddenly, you start feeling an apathy towards your job, when you previously took pride in it. Then cynicism sets in. Your productivity drops, or at least it feels that way. In the end, you put in more time and effort to try to compensate, but you don’t feel the sense of accomplishment you used to. You just feel even more tired. You’re burned out.

Burnout starts with a lack of energy, then gradually building into a sense of exhaustion.

Burnout, though, is not a recent phenomenon. In 2018, a Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that 23% of them reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes.

Celebrities like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé have spoken out about burnout and the need to give themselves a break. Queen Latifah revealed all to Parade about her struggle with burnout as well. Selena Gomez, just 26, took a career hiatus in 2016 to overcome burnout, explaining that she even switched off her cell phone for 90 days. “It was the most refreshing, calming, rejuvenating feeling,” the actress explained. “Now I rarely pick up my phone, and only limited people have access to me.”

Finding time to recharge helped Latifah feel better mentally and physically. “Just taking a walk every day is one of the things that can help with that but also just taking a break,” she said. “Checking in, seeing how you feel, emotionally, seeing how you feel, physically.”

As I said, we tend to think of burnout as affecting doctors, teachers, office workers. I’m not sure if, say, a hairdresser or a car mechanic would say they are burned out, though their work is objectively harder. Perhaps they basically don’t even have the luxury to talk about burnout.

Though they may not regularly appear in studies, Stela Salminen, a psychologist at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland says that her research suggests that people in lower-paid jobs are in fact at particular risk of burnout, precisely because they are given less resources and less support.  

Burnout, though, isn’t unique to the coronavirus pandemic, because the causes have morphed over the past year. Now, forced productivity or not feeling a sense of purpose at a day job are just two of the reasons. On the contrary, many people are doing work they consider more important than ever. Rather, it’s that for the past 16 months there has been nothing but work. Many of us have been cut off from the people and activities that gave our life meaning before.

When the pandemic first hit, everyone was so busy trying to adjust and keep things moving that we didn’t have time to worry about longer-term consequences. But more than a year on, says Torsten Voigt, a sociologist at RWTH Aachen University in Germany who has researched burnout, this initial expenditure of energy may be catching up with us. “Now, when we take a deep breath, some will realise that they potentially have given too much at that point and that they need a break,” he says.

People in lower-paid jobs are in fact at particular risk of burnout, precisely because they are given less resources and less support.

The world in which burnout was initially conceived was quite different to the one we live and work in today. The gig economy, automation, smartphones, zoom calls have transformed the way many of us work. Add to this the fear of being infected by someone, losing one’s job, being affected by the dreaded FATF (it’s almost a Fatwa, though we are not Muslim), being called a Gaħan, calling off your long-postponed holiday to Sicily because it has been placed on a Yellow List or because your trip with Ponte has been cancelled, and you could well feel that life isn’t worth living anymore.

Though the World Health Organisation has not defined burnout as an occupational disease, the symptoms of burnout have become medical. Living through the pandemic has been making us sick. Any primary-care doctor will tell you that the physical-health toll of collective trauma — high blood pressure, headaches, herniated discs — have become quite common. And this has been before many people have returned to the office or resumed their pre-pandemic schedules.

The mental-health crisis of the pandemic is also very real. According to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a staggering four in 10 adults reported symptoms of anxiety and depression, a quadrupling of the pre-pandemic rate. More than one in four mothers reported that the pandemic has had a major impact on their mental health. 24% of parents reported being diagnosed with a mental-health disorder since the start of the pandemic. Visits to primary care for anxiety and depression increased by 13% among kids. I do not suppose that people in Malta have been spared the crisis, though the percentages may be different.

This may be little comfort to those suffering, but this moment may pose an opportunity to rethink our roles at work and to reconsider our relationship with work – not just on an individual level, but on a societal one. 

Addressing burnout in a systemic way could mean reducing workloads, redistributing resources, or rethinking workplace hierarchies. One suggestion, is to give people more autonomy in their roles so that they can play to their individual strengths – fitting the job around the person rather than making a person fit into the job.

But it could also mean grappling with broader inequalities, in the workplace and beyond. This could mean improving a toxic company culture, adapting parental leave and childcare policies, or introducing more flexible working. It could be offering more social support to parents and carers. It could mean making sure everyone has decent working rights and a living wage.

Making system changes is difficult. But the return to the “new normal” after COVID-19 requires them. Whether they will help me stop feeling like a zombie depends on society’s response to the burnout challenge.

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