In 2019, Anne Helen Petersen wrote a now-viral Buzzfeed article about how millennials had become the burnout generation, arguing that this digitally native group (those born between 1981 and 1996) were “trained, tailored and primed for the workplace,” suffering from the plight of a never-ending to-do list, burnt out by the pressure to always be optimising.
Fast forward to 2020. For several months now, many of us have been confined to working and living in the same exact space in our homes. We’ve all been in and out of lockdown, and on the edge of a spiralling global economy as a result of the pandemic. For many, those anxieties that Petersen highlighted a year ago couldn’t feel any more salient.
It goes without saying that the arrival of COVID-19 has shifted how—and where—we work, dramatically. While some have been furloughed or made redundant, causing anxieties of their own, a large proportion of people are having to work from home or in extraneous circumstances. As a result, those who have continued to work over the past eight months are increasingly exhausted.
What is lockdown burnout?
Prior to global lockdown, we were already living in the age of ‘workism’, the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production but also an essential part of one’s identity. “Work ethic is valued above all else,” says Dr Thomas Curran, an assistant professor at London School of Economics. “The more excessive, the more we seem to value it.”
At a time when socialising is forbidden, shops, gyms and restaurants are still shut, and we are confined to our homes, for those of us who have it, work has taken on ever more heightened importance. With little else to do, particularly by way of leisure time, work has become a lifeline— providing us with a sense of meaning and normality.
Furthermore, lockdown has increased job insecurity, meaning there is more pressure than ever to perform in a work context. “If our jobs are precarious,” as so many are during this time, “we might operate in a constant state of dread of losing our incomes,” explains Dr Anna Katharina Schaffner, author of Exhaustion: A History (Columbia University Press).
Then there is the problem of working from home — a privilege in many ways, but one that also comes with serious psychological pitfalls. A lack of routine and structure, distraction from children, family and flatmates, constant anxieties about the spread of the virus and uncertainty of the future have made working productively with focus and efficiency very challenging. “When external structures fall away, we are in danger of thinking we should work all the time, feeling guilty if we cannot do so,” says Dr Schaffner. “Work then begins to bleed into our days and even nights, eroding any opportunity for recharging.”
“I was beginning work at 6:30am and some days not finishing until after 6pm,” says primary school teacher Lauren, explaining that the disruption of transitioning a class of 30 pupils online in a matter of weeks forced her to work 12-hour days and experience utter exhaustion. “I was working late into the night, attempting to find some semblance of organisation,” she adds. Despite her best effort, she found herself in a spiral of self-blame, never feeling as though she was doing a good enough job.
Indeed, in the absence of the feedback, validation and approval we would ordinarily get from face-to-face interactions from colleagues and senior team members, working from home alone means we become our own overly critical bosses. “Often people work more and harder from home, self-policing in a way that is much stricter than any external management expectations would be,” says Dr Schaffner, explaining that this feeds a perpetual cycle of stress and anxiety, which not only has a negative impact on our work but more importantly on our wellbeing.
Who does lockdown burnout affect?
Burnout can affect anyone, however, as Dr Schaffner argues, some groups are more susceptible, particularly those in the caring professions. Research from 2018 found two out of three doctors in China were suffering from burnout, while a US study found that 78 per cent of physicians were struggling. Elsewhere, 2019 data shows medical professionals in Jamaica and Canada also have burnout symptoms while the rate of staff leaving the UK’s NHS due to excessive stress nearly trebled over the past seven years—and this was all before Covid-19.
One can only imagine the ways in which the pandemic has exacerbated these struggles. In fact, new research from China highlights the scale of the impact on frontline nurses, meanwhile, as more people are hospitalised with the virus in the US, experts suggest health workers are potentially reaching psychological breaking points.
In fact, research shows women across all professions are statistically more likely to experience burnout, feeling an increased pressure to be ‘always on’. New research by McKinsey shows that senior-level women are significantly more likely than men at the same level to feel burnt out and under pressure to work more. Dr Schaffner suggests this is because women feel greater pressure to strike the balance between childcare and work commitments. “Many of us felt guilty for not being able to commit fully to our work and also for not being as committed a parent as we want to be.” Working from home, especially now that there might be less access to childcare will, of course, exacerbate this.
What’s the solution to lockdown burnout?
The obvious answer is self-care or “pre-emptive self-care” as Dr Curran calls it, which is to say, “replenishing mental and emotional reserves before burnout hits.” Indeed, going easy on ourselves and listening to our bodies can all help us cope with the pressure to be productive during this time. Both Dr Curran and Dr Schaffner suggest establishing clear work-life boundaries and routines. Dr Schaffner recommends establishing a clear beginning and end to the working day with regular breaks throughout as well as finding other ways to switch off from work stressors such as turning off your work emails or notifications to create a clearer division.
However, they both agree that self-care isn’t easy, and has itself become another project on our to-do list. The problem is that we tend to see almost everything as work these days—relationships, parenting, self-care—Dr Schaffner notes, “we measure our actions and thoughts in terms of investment of energy and effort and outcome.” Indeed, framed in terms of self-optimisation, the modern pressure to look after ourselves and pursue wellbeing can become as exhausting as the problems that are contributing to our ill-health in the first place.
Instead, if we truly seek to prevent burnout, we need to change our attitudes to work. “We need to stop overinvesting in work, expecting it to deliver salvation and meaning, and detach our deeper purpose from it,” says Dr Schaffner. We must recalibrate our cultural fixation on productivity and instead seriously consider the role wellbeing can play in the workplace. For now though, as we flit between lockdowns, we must all be reminded of the critical importance of self-compassion.