A to-do list in my phone, on my desk, on my wall, on the refrigerator—all of these to-do lists, yet I cannot bring myself to complete any of the tasks. When the pandemic began in the United States a year ago, my working and schooling shifted from being in the city to being in my home. Last year’s “three weeks to flatten the curve” has turned into over a year of existing almost exclusively in my home. The short run has become a marathon, and it has taken a heavy toll on my motivation.
This struggle to stay on top of responsibilities is often referred to as “burnout.” Burnout occurs after prolonged and excessive amounts of stress. It can be seen when a person reaches their limits mentally, emotionally, and physically. The stress causes feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, lack of energy and motivation, and even the smallest of tasks can feel overwhelming. While it was present prior to the pandemic, lockdowns, the stress of living in a pandemic, and the mixture of home and workspaces have exacerbated feelings of burnout.
Business employees and academics alike are feeling the ennui of burnout. Surveys of faculty members from various United States higher-education institutions found that nearly 70% of respondents felt stressed and worn out in 2020, which was more than doubled the findings of 2019. Women seemed to be more affected than men, with 75% of women reporting to be under extreme stress compared to 34% of men.
In a global health crisis, one may think educators and employers would understand the associated difficulties and attempt to reduce work-related stress. Unfortunately, in our neoliberal society, that is not the case. In an attempt to preserve capitalist income, business owners are attempting to change the order of work to make working from home a new, unquestioned, acceptable norm. Instead of giving employees and students time off work to help manage the stresses of the pandemic, most Americans have been asked to work or manage their schooling from their homes.
With the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations, in-office working may be returning for some, but others will continue the new model of in-home labor. Salesforce.com Inc., for example, has announced it will permanently implement “work from anywhere” policies and as of September 2020, only 10% of Manhattan’s workers had returned to their jobs in the city. This is much the same for my job—while nearly everyone I work with is fully vaccinated, I am not expected to return to the office until October. Even then, we are likely to be implementing a partial telework schedule, meaning we will be working from home for part of the week and in person for the other part.
Between both work and school responsibilities, I’m quite frankly exhausted. Monday through Wednesday, I sit in my office chair from 8am to 8-9pm with few breaks to get up and move around. Thursdays and Fridays, I consider myself lucky to only be office-bound for 10 hours—that is, if I don’t have additional homework to complete. As one might imagine, I am suffering greatly from burnout. Everything feels like it takes an extra two-to-three hours to complete, it feels impossible to find the right words for emails or essays, and I am quite frankly sick of seeing the same four walls every day of every week.
So, we’re feeling the effects of burnout—now what? How do we pull ourselves out of these stressed, hopeless ruts? The most frequently shared advice on avoiding and recovering from burnout is to dedicate time and energy to self-care. Self-care seems like it’s the hottest term at the moment, but what does it entail? In truth, it’s different for everyone. It may be eating healthier, getting an adequate amount of sleep every night, connecting with friends and family virtually, disconnecting from social media to avoid “doom-scrolling,” or the aimless scrolling through apps for hours at a time.
For me, I have found that the best self-care strategies are taking frequent breaks, even if it’s just for a few minutes to walk away from my office, pet my cat, or walk around the block. On top of this, I’ve discovered how much I excel in my mental health when I stick to a schedule. With teleworking, it can be easy to hit the snooze button over and over again, but waking up with the intent of starting work on time has changed my mood and motivation drastically.
Alicia Grandey, a professor of psychology, suggests adopting the D.A.R.E. model in day-to-day life. The acronym stands for Detach, Acknowledge, Recover, and Engage. People should detach themselves from their work environment for whatever amount of time they can spare and step away from their screens. Acknowledge refers to recognizing your state of mind and identifying your current emotions, stressors, and needs. Grandey considers the key points of the recover step to be resting and replenishing oneself. Finally, she suggests once you feel replenished to engage with your work once more. The goal of D.A.R.E. is to listen to yourself, your needs, and prioritize your well-being to avoid or improve burnout.
If you’re feeling the effects of burnout, either now in the midst of the pandemic or at any point in the future, I encourage you to explore these strategies. Take some time to evaluate your stressors, reassess expectations of yourself, and identify methods of care that will help your well-being. In a society so bent on capitalist gain and labor exploitation, it’s up to you to take care of yourself, so give yourself the time you deserve.