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Life Kit: Pandemic Burnout


People feeling burned out at work are not alone. A recent survey of workers in more than 40 countries found that more than 60% of them reported they felt burnt out often or very often during the pandemic. Research shows that workplace burnout poses a serious risk to mental health. So our Life Kit team asked how you can know when you're burned out and what to do when you are. In this encore presentation, NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee has some tips.


RHITU CHATTERJEE: Work was relentless in 2020 for Diane Ravago. She's an EMT in California.

DIANE RAVAGO: I work 24-hour shifts. Just the way that it falls, I'll work anywhere between two to three 24-hour shifts in a seven-day period.

CHATTERJEE: After an especially busy summer, Ravago hit a wall.

RAVAGO: It was an overwhelming set of feelings where I wasn't making the right decisions. I was beyond exhausted physically, mentally, emotionally.

CHATTERJEE: Then she began to doubt herself.

RAVAGO: I started to question myself. Like, man, like, can I do this? Can I do this for the rest of my life? Can I do this every day?

CHATTERJEE: That kind of self-doubt is part of the burnout experience, says psychologist Christina Maslach.

CHRISTINA MASLACH: Thinking, what has gone wrong with me? Why am I not good at this? Why can't I handle it?

CHATTERJEE: Maslach is at the University of California, Berkeley, and has studied burnout for decades. She says exhaustion is also a symptom.

MASLACH: You're tired. You can't focus. It's hard to get up the next morning and go back to work.

CHATTERJEE: Then, she says, people also start to feel cynical about work.

MASLACH: It's kind of take this job and shove it, you know, sort of thing.

CHATTERJEE: But it can be hard to recognize you're burnt out when you're in the middle of it. Dr. Jessi Gold is a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis.

JESSI GOLD: One of the things that I tell people is trying to pause and take almost like an inventory of how you're doing.

CHATTERJEE: If you find yourself feeling exhausted, angry, irritable or stressed often, chances are you're burnt out. Gold says it can help to check in with your mood multiple times each day.

GOLD: Well, every time I have a meeting with so-and-so, I feel horrible. And then every time I'm with this person or doing this thing, that's where I find most meaning.

CHATTERJEE: She says find ways to make little changes to your workday to make it less stressful. Maybe skip those meetings you hate. If you can't do that, Gold says, maybe do something you really enjoy right after the meetings.

GOLD: We can rearrange our day to have some positives with some negatives, so it's not a horrible day of just negative.

CHATTERJEE: This is important, she says, because a lack of control at work is a factor for burnout, as is working too much. So even short bursts of rest can help.

GAURAVA AGARWAL: And so taking that five minutes in an hour or one day a week to your ability to recuperate is going to be a big part of dealing with that exhaustion.

CHATTERJEE: Dr. Gaurava Agarwal is a psychiatrist and a wellbeing coach at Northwestern Medicine.

AGARWAL: Once we have our tanks refilled a little bit more, we have the ability to face the ongoing stressors moving forward.

CHATTERJEE: And for people working from home right now, Jessi Gold says, have clear boundaries between work and personal life. Wake up at the same time, shower, get dressed, have a clear beginning and end to your workday.

GOLD: This really allows your brain to think, like, this is work. This is life. I can have both and distinguish between the two. And that can allow me to have, like, enjoyment in my day-to-day life as well.

CHATTERJEE: Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.