By Deirdre Murray, Executive Coach, Trainer and Facilitator with PEOPLE RESOURCES
Covid-19 has been a rollercoaster of emotions which has taken a huge toll on not only our mental health, but also on our energy.
You’ve been working flat out remotely or have been on site day-in day-out over the last 18 months, which has seemed like a complete whirlwind. We have all gone through a roller coaster of emotions from fear, anger, upset, anxiety and depression. Never mind coping with the onset of coronavirus, you’ve had to deal with home schooling, anxious teenagers trying to prepare for exams, keeping your own health in check, dealing with elderly parents in isolation, funerals of loved ones that you can’t even attend, working onsite or online for long hours into the evening and task-focused bosses who haven’t once asked, “How are you today?” And you’re surprised when the doctor tells you, “You’re suffering from burnout!”
Social psychologist at Harvard, Amy Cuddy, has aptly named what we are currently experiencing post-Covid as “pandemic flux.” Her research has shown that many people are currently experiencing blunted emotions, or spikes of anxiety and depression and a desire to drastically change something in our lives. Some people have conflicted feelings about returning to the workplace due to fatigue and find it hard to recalibrate to the work setting.
Burnout is insidious. It creeps up on us over time and we fail to listen to our bodies when they are screaming out for rest. A recent report from Indeed, (April 2021), indicated that almost 52% of employees feel burned out post-Covid, with stress, mental health, overwhelm, and fatigue the most common symptoms. We think we’re indispensable and so we soldier on as best we can, thinking that because we’re not coping we’re not working hard enough. Unfortunately, for many employees, the cycle of burnout becomes chronic and can take a long time to recover from. It may even require hospitalisation, just to allow the body to ‘break the cycle.’
As Bessel Van Der Volk, a leading trauma and PTSD researcher tells us, “the body keeps the score.” Your body will stop you before you do. You ignore the signals and put it down to a bad night’s sleep but as the days and weeks go on it doesn’t get any better.
What exactly is burnout?
The WHO (World Health Organisation), defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” “The symptoms are physical and emotional, and include feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from and feelings of negativity or cynicism towards one’s job; and a reduced ability to do one’s work.”
Research among faculty members in the US, stated that over 50% were seriously considering retiring or leaving their jobs post Covid. Seventy-five percent of women indicated that they we under stress and 59% of men. Approximately 75% of people indicated that they had increased their workloads as a result of Covid and that their work/life balance had deteriorated.
Burnout occurs when our internal resources can no longer keep pace with the demands of daily life and our body becomes depleted of energy. We can experience depressed mood, overwhelm, lack of restful sleep, mental detachment, increased irritability, and less tolerance for the daily trials and tribulations of life.
This can have a huge toll on not only your own health, your career but can impact your family life. It is vital, therefore, to give this the priority it deserves and take regular time out just to listen to your body and let it guide you, instead of blindly ignoring the warning signals. We must first understand and recognize the signs of burnout and then implement practical ways to get your energy back and get you on a path to sustained good health.
It is important to take stock and identify where would you put yourself today in terms of your capacity to deal with stress and the current challenges your facing. Dr. Chris Johnstone terms this the ‘capacity/challenge curve.’ Are you someone who is managing their stress levels very well and are comfortably in the ‘green zone’, or are you heading for danger in the ‘amber zone’ and need to build in remedies to alleviate your stress, or have you crossed the line and are definitely in the ‘red zone’ of burnout and need support?
Where are you on this axis today?
Source: Dr. Chris Johnstone – “Seven Ways to Build Resilience”
Here are 5 Practical Steps you can take today to help you recharge and reset:
1. Rest is an active skill. Make a conscious decision to incorporate rest into your daily routine – even for 20 minutes.
This statement “rest is an active skill,” might seem a bit of an oxymoron. Sometimes we resist the most basic of rehabilitation exercises and that is to literally let the body rest.
In his excellent book on the neuroscience of rest, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang describes rest as an essential and deliberate activity to allow our beleaguered brains to function properly. Be kind to yourself. Rest is essential for getting good work done. Therefore, there are times when we really have to step back and consciously sit still and allow the time for our bodies to rest! This may involve booking in rest days for yourself once every six weeks. Mindful breathing is also very beneficial in allowing the brain to rest and just focusing solely on the breath, allowing you to reconnect with your body. The Italians have a great phrase, “dolce fa niente” – the sweet joy of doing nothing!
2. Build flexibility into your schedule
Many employees have witnessed the benefits of hybrid or remote working during the pandemic and it has shown to be just as productive as onsite working in many circumstances. Research during Covid-19 have indicated that productivity and performance of individuals was not impacted, (Mercer Study of 800 companies, Sept 2020), and in fact increased as employees really valued the freedom of not having the long commute to work every day and the stress for some parents in getting young children, still in pyjamas, into the car at 5.30am, just to take them to relatives to mind them. The return to the office requires flexibility on behalf of the employer to allow employees to escape the grind of the hectic rush hour traffic and work 2 or 3 days at home for targeted, focused work, where possible.
3. Set boundaries
In our normal office routine, we tend to go to work at the same time and leave at the same time. With the pandemic, however, work boundaries have blurred and ‘work creep’ has occurred, due to the challenges of trying to keep pace and the difficulty in managing child care for many parents of young children. If you don’t set your own boundaries, someone else will create them for you. Create a ‘transition’ from work to home: take a short 5 min walk to end your day, practice some stretches or gentle yoga exercises; detach from your devices – shut down your computer at a scheduled time, turn off your email notifications and give your brain a break.
4. Move your body. Build up a gentle routine of exercise to oxygenate the body and increase your stamina.
You may feel you do not have the energy to take a long walk, but even walking for 10 minutes can change your mood as you’re changing your physiology; it allows you to get some fresh air and enjoy nature, even for a short while. Once you create a simple habit, you can build on this day by day. As Stanford Professor B. J. Fogg emphasizes, tiny habits can lead to big changes.
5. Taking time out to mind your mental health
Many organisations now offer wellness classes such as yoga, mindfulness and meditation and incorporate mental health days into the calendar to allow employees to mind themselves which is really positive. This is all very well if you’re allotted the time to do it. It’s about having a wellness culture in place that is thoroughly supported throughout the organisation and is not seen as some sort of luxury.
Take that one small step today that will make a big difference to how you look after you!
About the author
Deirdre Murray, Founder and Director of PEOPLE RESOURCES, partners as an Executive Coach, Trainer and Facilitator with leading multinationals and public sector bodies across all sectors.
Deirdre is co-author of “Emotional Intelligence (EQ) – A Leadership Imperative!” Her second book in the management briefs series, “Communicate with Impact! Communicate & Influence Successfully,” is out now at www.peopleresources.ie. She is a regular motivational speaker at conferences, seminars and on radio broadcasts and provides journal entries for leading business magazines.