The toll of the insidious COVID-19 virus is huge. Its many physical effects are still being uncovered and understood – and the mental health impact of this pandemic is alarming.
Work-related burnout, especially among women, is one debilitating aspect of the rampant global pandemic, and the lockdowns and movement restrictions imposed by governments to limit the spread.
Clinical director and psychotherapist Mark Butler said increased isolation leads to loneliness, while depression and anxiety over our uncertain future, and risky financial stability, are some of the contributing factors to burnout.
“Working through these destabilising conditions has taken a toll,” Butler said.
What is work-related burnout?
Butler, who assists employees with recovery from burnout and its associated mental health issues, said work-related burnout is a form of, or the result of, work-related stress.
“The important thing to recognise is that stress is not a mental health condition, but is merely a state of being,” he said.
“How we respond to stress in our lives is subjective and can fluctuate depending on other conditions. Some people will be more resilient, and can thrive in a stressful environment and bounce back more easily. But when the stress level is ongoing, or increases, it is seen to be chronic and can have a debilitating effect.”
The mental health specialist said its manifestation varies but “in a general sense, the symptoms will be similar to other workplace mental-health issues: anxiety, low mood, detachment, missing deadlines, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, and cynicism towards colleagues or superiors”.
Gill Holden, founder of recruitment services business Clover Lane Consulting, said burnout brings a sense of lost hope.
“It tells us there is ‘not enough’. Not enough energy, options, motivation, ability, or the will to carry on. Burnout is the final straw; the result of a long period of stress and strive,” she told SHE DEFINED.
Holden said the dramatic changes we have had to adjust to are so great and so new they “demand us to be different, to live different, to work different, to worry different, to care different, to feel different. It asks us for all of these changes and then it mandates that we accept it and be okay with it.”
Women harder hit by burnout during pandemic
It has been recognised that women have been hit harder by burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A recent study by international aid agency CARE found that of 10,400 men and women in 38 countries, women are almost three times as likely as men to report significant mental health consequences.
And Monash University academics Professor Jane Fisher and Dr Maggie Kirkman found in their national survey during April and early May 2020 that clinically significant depression and anxiety symptoms were at least two to three times higher than would normally be observed in the community.
“We were shocked by the high rates of both mild and serious distress being reported across Australia during the first month of restrictions,” Prof Fisher said.
“The people most affected were those who had lost their jobs, lived in poorly resourced areas, lived alone, and were providing care to dependent family members. These people tended to be women, young, and members of marginalised groups.”
It’s worth noting Melbourne residents have since gone on to endure even stricter lockdown measures for a prolonged period of time.
Butler said women have experienced work-related burnout given their higher concentration in caring and nursing roles, lower job-security due to more casual working conditions, and added responsibilities with domestic activities, such as home schooling.
“It is also a fact that women are employed in higher ratios in roles with lesser positions of responsibility and control, and this leads to job strain, usually seen in roles with high stress, lower reward, and lower levels of autonomy over the work or the outcomes,” he said.
Butler said it was unlikely women were more prone to burnout but that “their working conditions have played a significant role in their exposure to burnout issues”.
Another factor is that women take on more home-based and childcare duties, Holden said.
“With everyone at home, it’s the hamster wheel of constant housework. It never ends, with women carrying the burden, and doing the bulk of it all,” she said.
The recruitment coach said her clients reported overwhelm from “the alone-ness, the suffocation, the feelings of uncertainty”.
“With nothing to look forward to, no time to self, and the overwhelming uncertainty, women are more prone to burnout,” Holden said.
The blurring of work-home boundaries has undoubtedly made finding a healthy work-life balance difficult for many people whose homes have also become their office throughout the pandemic.
Holden said the mothers she had spoken to report an overwhelming feeling of guilt that neither work nor home is getting their best.
“(It’s) having to be ‘on’ and ready for Zoom calls with the children crawling around their feet. The guilt of not feeling like they achieve what they normally would within a workday.
“Then there’s the feelings of guilt for their (children’s) homework – the balance between reading lessons and school tasks. There is blame on self and the responsibility to be perfect, in a less than perfect world.”
Boundaries and balance critical to managing burnout
Both Butler and Holden agree there are things that can be done to reduce burnout, such as strategies an individual can employ and systems a workplace can establish to ensure mentally healthy employees.
Holden urges people to “get comfortable with being imperfect” in these unusual and difficult times, and to practise self-care.
“If you have the opportunity, rise before everyone else. Give yourself 30 minutes of awake time before you have to wear ten hats by 10am.
“Practise your positive self-talk and, if you don’t get something finished today, it’s okay. Your work project, your children’s readers, dinner, the dishes, whatever. Let it go. Tomorrow will be waiting.”
Holden said it is “a moral obligation” for employers to support and secure the wellbeing of all employees, allowing them to look after themselves in the process.
“Set a positive example for the team. Encourage time away from the desk. More hours in front of a screen does not equate to more productivity,” she said.
“Check in on employees, ask the question, don’t assume they are okay because they looked to be coping in the 8am Zoom (meeting).”
And she urged everyone to refrain from calling and emailing after hours.
Butler warned a healthy attitude to work-life balance is critical.
“Being able to and knowing when to switch off from work is necessary. Reducing screen time, keeping screens out of the bedroom, not answering emails outside working hours, for example,” he added.
Butler said employers have a responsibility to provide a mentally and physically safe work environment and conditions, where practical.
“This responsibility carries over to working from home, but blurs the lines a little. They have to be seen to be providing the right conditions to allow for safe working environments,” Butler said.
Maintaining sleep, physical health also important
Thankfully, individuals have the power to support their own mental and physical health.
“Maintaining and improving our physical health and getting sufficient sleep are probably the two areas where we can make a significant difference without too much effort to effect change,” Butler said.
“Mental health rates are still rising. The pandemic has clearly had a detrimental effect.”
Outlining the Monash survey findings, Prof Fisher said while a public health approach has been essential in trying to contain COVID-19, “a public mental health approach is needed for recovery”.
On a positive note, she said 80 per cent of respondents feel optimistic about the future.
“We do have a remarkable ability to live through difficult times, confident that these will eventually pass, but we all benefit from public policies and actions to help us recover.”