At the end of June, I was a marshmallow aflame. I was 1993 Michael Jordan. In other words, I was burned out.
The many months of additional childcare responsibilities, changing expectations at work, and heightened anxiety about health and humanity definitely took their toll. The loss of in-person connections and social support made it even more challenging. I am exceedingly thankful that I haven’t lost anyone close to me from Covid. I’m thankful to have kept my job and home during the pandemic. But all of the other stressors piled on consequentially. Luckily, I figured out what was wrong and identified some strategies that helped.
The Mayo Clinic offers a list of burnout symptoms:
- Have you become cynical or critical at work?
- Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
- Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?
I realized I was burned out after visiting family for 5 days in beautiful North Carolina, coming home, and still feeling utterly drained from any simple work request email. The inbox (not the people sending the messages) made me feel anxious and irritated.
American workers are no strangers to burnout. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s gotten worse. Up to 75% of workers have experienced burnout.
Many of us have dealt with burnout before, but perhaps not to this degree. My usual mitigation strategies (e.g., 5 days of vacation, exercise, time outdoors) were not working. Here’s what I’ve recently tried that has actually pulled me out of the pit of despair. Some of the strategies cost money or time, both of which are a privilege to have. Other strategies are easy to implement with limited resources.
- Get Away: At various points during the pandemic, I wanted to just get in my car and drive away. Now that I’m vaccinated, my homebody ways sometimes keep me from leaning into new adventures. For a change of scenery, I recently took an overnight trip to Maine with my husband. I’m also planning a long weekend trip with friends.
- Friends and Family: Prioritizing time together with people I care about has been uplifting. I brought my kids to visit my mom in her new apartment. I met a friend out for dinner. I hosted far-away friends in my home. I watched the Red Sox with my sister-in-law + friends. Each visit leaves me feeling thankful for the people in my life.
- Child Care: The cancellation of our overnight summer camp in 2020 was a big blow to my kids. They’re now away together at camp for the first time ever. I miss them, which is hard. And I miss them, which is good. I needed to miss them to rebuild my patience and energy for their return. They love their camp so much, that I know it’s the best thing for their mental health, too.
- Clean Sweep: My house accumulated a lot of junk during the pandemic–half-finished crafts, remote school assignments, broken toys. With the kids away, I’ve cleaned out closets, drawers, dollhouses, cars, you name it. The physical work and the organized outcome feel quite refreshing.
- Nothing Extra…: I’ve fulfilled only my minimum responsibilities at work for two weeks. A clean break from work (a true vacation) is important, but a slower pace during the week is also helpful when that’s not possible.
- …Except for Passion Projects: Many of us think we should accomplish more projects than we have time for. That should is stressful. So I went for a walk and mentally sorted out what I want to accomplish this summer. Everything “extra” is on pause except for a research project analyzing news coverage of pandemic gardening. I read articles about gardening! And work with two awesome friends on the project! It’s invigorating and social.
- The Standbys: Spending time outside (gardening, hiking, running, sitting on my porch) and getting enough sleep are coping strategies I’ve used before and through the pandemic. I need them. Always. Goals or benchmarks help me feel accomplished. I’m training for the Boston Marathon in October and made the vague plan to have the “best garden year ever” for this growing season.
After two weeks of intentionally managing burnout using the strategies above, I have renewed energy. I quickly tackled a new work problem without it taking an inordinate amount of mental space. I had the motivation to review a book. And I was inspired to write this post. Things are getting better.
Some employers are addressing this huge burnout problem by offering employees more time off or doing company-wide shutdowns. However, individualistic American culture often (unfortunately) leaves it to us to help ourselves. If you have other burnout mitigation strategies that worked for you, please comment below.
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