Burnout from Pandemic

Tired father with his two kids during quarantine. Stay at home concept. Online working and household at the same time while quarantine. Exhausted parents with children.

We all have heard how much the pandemic has placed huge amounts of stress on individuals and families. Another way to appreciate the impact of all this stress is to consider the signs and symptoms of burnout.

According to Psychology Today, “Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress. Though it’s most often caused by problems at work, it can also appear in other areas of life, such as parentingcaretaking, or romantic relationships.” 

According to an article from the American Thoracic Organization, there are three classic symptoms of Burnout Syndrome (BOS): exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment. I think it is pretty obvious that the pandemic has caused stress for many of us in one or more of these categories.

In the classic 1980 book Burn Out: How to Beat the High Cost of Success by Dr. Herbert Freudenberger, the author suggests there are a myriad of possible causes of burnout which still hold true today: in addition to exhaustion, there can be a detachment where someone separates themselves from people and events leading to what he calls the serious D’s: disengagement, distancing, dulling and deadness. Boredom is another piece that contributes to disengagement as people become disinterested and they question the value of what they are doing. Another piece is impatience and heightened irritability. An interesting symptom is a growing sense of extreme importance, where a person believes they are the only one that can do whatever needs to be done and therefore the person believes they are indispensable. That carries a lot of pressure! Burnout can also involve a suspicion of being unappreciated. Depression can be another outcome as a person experiences a combination of these feelings. I think parents and caregivers are experiencing many of these symptoms as a result of the pandemic.

Authors Dr. Joseph Procaccini and Mark Kiefaber in the book Parent Burnout invite us to consider a series of steps that burnout can take that I think provides an excellent overview of how burnout progresses.

The first stage is the gung-ho stage where a person feels excited and ready to take on whatever comes their way. In this stage a person throws themselves completely into the role, believing they can handle anything that comes along. They can see the challenges as an opportunity to show how capable they are at managing stressful situations. While most of us did not feel this way when the pandemic first hit – I think we all were in a place of shock and fear – we may have had an attitude of confidence that we would stay good in our roles and figure things out. We had no choice! We had to step up and be courageous and creative in order to manage all the new challenges!

When things don’t go exactly as planned and there are more challenges to face than a person can reasonably deal with, these issues and struggles can lead to feelings of guilt and failure because expectations were unrealistic and unfair. Some of the self-confidence in the gung-ho stage begins to deteriorate in this stage of doubting. A person can feel like they are inadequate. Exhaustion can begin to take hold. There can be physical issues that are manifestations of these emotional reactions: headaches, general tenseness, indigestion, heartburn, rashes, allergies, even things like heart problems.

As the downhill slide continues, resentment builds when a person feels they are doing all of the giving to children and other family members who take without gratitude and often with criticism that it is not enough (possibly because they are getting pretty stressed out as well.) Because parents and caregivers in that earlier stage constantly put out more energy than they receive, they end up with what the authors call “energy bankruptcy.” In this stage parents and caregivers find themselves being overreactive, angry, sometimes directing that anger towards their children and other family members and sometimes directing it towards themselves.

Young businessman has headache while working overtime with laptop at home office late night. Stressed depressed freelancer touching his head, feeling pain in eyes. Insomnia, internet addiction

There is a kind of turning point opportunity when a person has a buildup of fatigue, resentment, guilt and anger. They move into the Transition phase where they reassess the condition of their lives and make changes to interrupt unhealthy patterns, often leading them to stability, growth and health. If they don’t make this transition, they continue down the path where those feelings of resentment, anger and guilt are so exhausting and debilitating that they begin to disengage, pull away and ultimately become chronically disenchanted.

If this sounds familiar to you, at least now you can appreciate that you may be experiencing burnout, which is a real syndrome according to the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD), the ICD-10 edition (current 1994–2021) that classifies “burn-out” as a type of non-medical life-management difficulty under code Z73.0. It is considered to be one of the “factors influencing health status and contact with health services.  The condition is further defined as being a “state of vital exhaustion,” which historically had been called neurasthenia.

You may identify with the descriptions in this blog and wonder what you should do about it. That will be the focus of my next blog. The first step, however, is allowing yourself to become aware that the many symptoms you may have noticed in yourself are the result of being burned out. Your thoughts, feelings and behaviors are the expected responses to burnout and are not your fault.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. As you read the blog, are you having moments of recognition of some of your own experiences and related thoughts, feelings and behaviors?  Which ones come to mind?  Under what situations? Which people are involved in your experiences?
  2. To what extent have you felt powerless, ashamed of yourself, fearful, anxious, concerned for yourself and those you care for?
  3. Does the knowledge that there is an actual name for your symptoms provide some degree of comfort and hope?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute