Many years ago – long before Covid-19 – I was a young journalist in New Zealand, and I suffered from intense and overwhelming burnout. I was working at a national newspaper and was good at my job. This meant I was often called on to do the last-minute “spot news” to fill the front or the first few pages of the paper.
The job involved dealing with a lot of death. I saw a number of dead bodies – many just minutes after the accident had occurred – and those images are seared into my brain. I spoke with bereaved family members, most of whom did not want to speak with me. I had to door-knock family members (this is when you turn up and literally knock on someone’s door for what is essentially a surprise interview) mere hours after they learned their loved one had died. One particularly awful time, I reached a family before the police had informed them of their loved one’s death, and thus proceeded to (unknowingly) inform a woman that her husband had died in a car crash we were covering. I almost quit that day.
I was yelled at a lot. People screamed at me. Told me to “f*** off” (can’t say I blame them). One time someone threw a chair at me. Another time, a family set their dogs on me. These incidents were common enough that often the photographers I often worked with would leave the car running with the doors open, so that we could make a quick getaway from our door-knock if we needed to.
You’d think all of that would have got to me (it did), but what finally did it was an awful accident involving a woman who was driving her two grandchildren under the influence, leading to all three of them dying. It was tragic, and I decided I didn’t want to cover it. I couldn’t. My boss told me to approach the family as usual, but I refused. I was already out in the field but turned around and came back without getting what was wanted by the paper. My boss was waiting for me when I turned up, handed me a cigarette (I smoked and drank heavily in those days) and I proceeded to yell at him. I swore, through hot tears, and told him he was a piece of s*** for making me do these stories. I snapped. I was given a couple of weeks’ leave (much-needed), but I didn’t receive any follow-up to my outburst, or professional help – not until many years later when I sought it out for myself.
This was my first lesson in burnout and not dealing with the source of my discomfort and stress until it was too late. I have had a couple of other close calls since then, but over the years I have equipped myself with the tools and practices necessary to help me cope with stress.
Then along came Covid-19 and its ongoing, relentless ability to bring the entire world to its knees.
When we think of burnout or stress, we often align it with short-term demands – such as meeting deadlines or juggling workloads – but what about when the stress feels like a marathon? When there’s so much uncertainty and few answers? When the powers-that-be don’t know enough and when life is expected to continue as “normally” as possible?
We know that our collective mental health is in the process of suffering a global burnout. According to the Harvard Business Review, 85% of people say their wellbeing has declined over the past year and 62% can’t balance work and other responsibilities. We are exhausted, constantly dealing with bad news,and can’t maintain strong connections with each other. This crosses over into our work lives, too. While workplace engagement and wellbeing usually rise and fall at the same time, Gallup’s 2020 report on the “Wellbeing-Engagement Paradox” found that during Covid-19 they have diverged, with engagement shooting up at the start of the pandemic, as wellbeing tanked. Towards the end of 2020, engagement dropped, too.
My personal opinion is that fear probably propelled this initial engagement (people felt lucky to have their jobs, etc), and they worked so hard to find a purpose throughout the change that they did a number on their mental health.
It’s been 13 years since my first brush with burnout, and since then I have had a sort of mental checklist of things that help me cope with the subtle but pervasive toll this pandemic is taking. Some of these tips might not be new to you, but if we can help each other through this slow-motion horror, then all the better to strengthen our collective psyches:
Teach yourself to cope better with bad news
This is a big one, but perhaps the most helpful to me over the years. Bad news – small or big – always had me immediately fearing the worst and plunging into those feelings. Now, there are a few steps I take to give myself perspective and bring me back on track. Firstly, regulate your physical response to bad news (like going back into lockdown, for example) by breathing deeply. I know it sounds simple, but it works. Secondly, contextualise the news and focus on the worst outcome. It sounds counterintuitive, but by framing the bad news in its proper context (i.e. lockdown is terrible, but at least it will help to keep us healthy and safe) and envisioning the worst thing that could happen actually helps prepare your brain to deal with any fallout. Finally, you can reframe to focus on the best possible outcome, and flip the narrative on its head.
But also, don’t force positivity
This is a pet peeve of mine anyway, but toxic positivity be damned. When things go wrong, telling yourself “it will be okay” or “focus on the positive” won’t cut it a lot of the time. I have found that the best way to come out the other side of a stressful situation or feeling is to allow myself to sit in my authentic emotion for as long as I need. Don’t pretend everything is okay when it isn’t. This only serves to increase overall stress and feed the burnout symptoms.
My 1-2-3 approach to planning and routine
I picked this up years ago and do it almost on a daily basis to give my day some structure – but also enough flexibility that I don’t force myself to feel like a failure. Each day, I write down one thing I absolutely must achieve; my non-negotiable task. Underneath that, I write two things that I will do my very best to complete, which I expect to get done about 75% of the time. And finally, there are three more tasks that I will do if I have the time. Some of these will relate to work deadlines, and others will be things I do for myself or others. I have found it really helps set the day up for success (and more often than not I complete almost everything just by virtue of writing it down in the first place.)
Ask yourself these 3 questions about work
Is what I do rewarding? Do I have a supportive community at work? Is my workload reasonable?
In my opinion, these three things form the base of a supportive and positive atmosphere to work from. If one is missing, it doesn’t mean you need to leave that job, but it does indicate there may be steps you can take or suggest to close that gap. The last question is particularly important to give clarity around stress, but it requires being honest with yourself. Usually, your workload is reasonable, but there are numerous things that may have happened to increase your stress levels around it (i.e. your kid got sick, you got pulled onto another project, etc) and so it feels unmanageable. Often the solution is a lesson in time management, or perhaps chatting with your manager to find a solution.
I truly believe the key to ensuring that you or your employees avoid burnout – pandemic related or not – is to completely break the stigma of discussing personal issues at work, and openly talking about mental health. Leaders and managers should guide the way here, by showcasing that we all have stuff going on. We know that a personal issue can impair someone’s ability to operate at work, so let’s break the silence around it. It doesn’t mean you need to overshare, but normalising things like taking a mental health day because of a personal issue will not only help people feel more comfortable to do the same, but also potentially give others courage to seek professional help, without fear of it hurting their careers.
While these coping mechanisms are things I personally do, often the onus also falls to organisations to reset their working practices and culture to better align with the modern world. Too many companies are still caught up in “this is the way it’s always been done” that they fail to see how their inflexibility is increasing anxiety, stress, and productivity.
Burnout was a problem long before Covid-19, but this pandemic has been the true test of our ability to properly address the issue, rather than just writing blogs about it. I hope this one has at least gone some way in helping both employees and employers rethink how we support one another to find purpose, fulfillment and overall well being.
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