The 2020 Burnout Is Real: Here's Why You Feel So Fatigued Right Now

Burnout isn't new. The way things are set up, it's practically a mandatory part of life. But in 2020, people are feeling the burnout more than ever. It's no wonder, with the global pandemic and its knock-on effects—such as limited time spent outdoors and socialising with friends and family—not to mention the ever increasing pressure to work as much as possible in the interest of securing a future in an economically and politically unstable world. It's exhausting.

To gain some insight into this new and improved burnout, let's call it the Great Burnout of 2020, we spoke to some health experts about some ways that we can cope and get through the year in one piece.

So if you're experiencing an extreme and chronic case of work-related stress like never before, or if someone in your life has expressed concern about your off the richter anxiety levels, take a breath and know that you are not alone and there is a way forward. Burnout ignored has the potential to become something more serious, so the most powerful thing you can do right now is speak up and put yourself first.

First, let's clarify the meaning of burnout by consulting the Macquarie Dictionary, which says that burnout is a colloquial term used to describe "a nervous breakdown brought on by exhaustion and stress". It's sometimes referred to as "occupational burnout" or, according to the Macquarie Dictionary, "executive burnout", and in 2019 it was recognised by the World Health Organisation as "syndrome [conceptualised] as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed". According to the WHO, the three symptoms of burnout are:

  1. feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  2. increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings negative towards one’s career
  3. reduced professional productivity

We spoke to four experts from different fields about why burnout is so damn extra in 2020 and what we can do to get through it.

The doctor 

For the better part of 2020, Sydney-based family doctor, Dr Sam Saling, has been seeing as many cases of burnout each month as she once saw in a whole year, pointing to the fact that more people are working from home as one of the key reasons for the increase.

"The boundary between home and work is being increasingly blurred," she says. "I am hearing from more and more patients that they are working longer hours than ever, and find it increasingly difficult to call it a day and focus on life outside of work.

She also says that a faltering global economy has led to people willing to do more for their employers without any extra compensation or acknowledgement.

"There is also the expectation that since people are at home 'doing nothing' anyway, so they think 'I may as well do some work,' as one patient told me.

"There is so much uncertainty about our future, which I think is the main reason burnout rates are skyrocketing (let alone the depression and anxiety that can further develop). Because there is no clear way out of this pandemic, people see an endless stretch ahead of the same old monotony, as what works to stop the spread of COVID-19 (social distancing, staying at home, wearing masks) is very difficult to continue long term without it having some effect on your mindset.

"We are all exhausted from the daily rising figures of coronavirus casualties, being stuck at home, and the lack of celebrations and milestones ahead. People are fearful of what is to come, and feel helpless. Often this presents in the form of burnout, as work tasks seem less and less important when the world seems to be imploding around us."

Sam's advice:

"I encourage anyone experiencing symptoms of burnout to seek help immediately. A good first step is acknowledging these feelings." Sam says that burnout often comes on gradually, and to look out for that telltale sign—the feeling of immense dread that comes on whenever we even think about work.

She says that anyone feeling burnt out should speak to a doctor and ask them to help devise a path to recovery.

"Burnout is not something new to health professionals," she says. "With shift work, high expectations and gruelling hours, we have all been there at some stage. Because of this, we are well placed to help with your concerns. We get it."

In addition to seeking medical help, Sam says that acts of self care are an essential way to immediately prioritise your wellbeing.

"Self care is essential, so make sure to prioritise rest, rejuvenation, and participating in activities that bring you joy," she says. "For some, it may be yoga, for others it may be cooking. In extreme cases of burnout, it is not uncommon to recommend to patients taking extended leave from work, or even a holiday (which I have prescribed before!). Vacationing is obviously not a wise option at the moment, which is why perhaps taking a couple of weeks off work and having some R&R at home is so important. Having this time to reset will help you to assess what are the key issues causing your burnout."

When it comes to work, not everyone has a supportive employer who is receptive to the concept of burnout. Sam says that it's crucial to stop burning the candle at both ends—and this doesn't mean giving everything to your job and nothing to yourself.

"Set clear, reasonable work ours, and stick to them," she says. "Have an alarm for when work starts, when your lunch break starts and ends, and when to clock off for the day. Disconnect all your work apps, ignore any emails from now on, and start focusing on you. These are simple measures that have excellent effects on your wellbeing."

The clinical psychologist

Clinical psychologist Dr Jodie Lowinger says she's seen an escalation of burnout in the people she works with, with the overwhelming uncertainty causing people feeling out of control. From Jodie's perspective, burnout happens when stress reaches its saturation point and it's simply no longer possible to "soldier on".

"The challenge is that while we might usually be aware of being under a lot of stress, burnout can creep up on us without us recognising that it is even happening."

"I have worked with many business executives who were trying to continue to push through but their physiological state was simply not enabling them to. They felt like they weren't themselves and couldn't understand why."

Jodie's advice:

"The key message is to not suffer in silence but to seek out the help that you need. There is no stigma or shame in the experience of burnout, anxiety or depression. It is important to respond with help seeking behaviour to these challenges because with the right scientifically supported strategies from trained professionals you can be equipped with a powerful toolkit to help.

She says we should first recognise that we are experiencing burnout, and that it is a physiological depletion that is also very remediable with the right evidence-based strategies.

Jodie has created a toolkit that aims to help her patients take their anxiety, stress, low mood and burnout and turn nit into empowered, resilient and high performing action, efficiently and effectively.

"When you experience burnout, you are often unable to see any hope of positive change in your situation. It is relentless, with no perceived reprieve. Contextual, mindset and behavioural strategies can be powerful to help people to turn these problems around."

The spiritual healer

According to author and healer Jerico Mandybur, being burnt out can be more like a feeling of numbness.

"Burnout looks like being so mentally and emotionally (and often physically, since the brain and body are so connected) exhausted that you can't 'feel' anymore. It's like extreme autopilot, where you feel like you've stopped caring. It seems as though prolonged stress reaches a peak and once you reach the point of emotional overwhelm, you shut down.

"The pandemic has left millions sick, out of work or else unsure of the future of their work, the political sphere seems obvious veering further and further to the right with violent consequences, and the climate crisis is keeping everyone in a state of grief. This is the context in which many of us are still expected to work with the same level of speed, enthusiasm, and productivity as we've always done—except now we're doing it from home, meaning our work-life boundaries are worse than ever. It's a burnout powder keg!"

Jerico's advice:

Seek the support of a professional mental health worker. Read about and begin practicing boundaries, which means learning to say no and managing your time in a way that prioritises your wellbeing, not your employer's bottom line.

It's also helpful to develop a daily wellness or spiritual habit that will aid you in resting, nourishing your body, processing your emotions, and grounding into awareness. That could be journalling, meditation, yoga, going for a run, or eating energising healthy foods."

The fitness whiz

Tiffiny Hall, CEO of holistic fitness platform TIFFXO, confirms that in her experience burnout is at an all time high in 2020, due largely to the exhausting uncertainty that people are dealing with.

"The lack of control breeds anxiety, fatigue, stress, frustration, sadness and a loss of motivation, which is making us feel more depleted than ever. It creates chaos emotionally, psychologically and physically, as well as massive disruptions to our daily routines and the way we usually live our lives."

Tiff's advice:

For Tiff, the two most effective ways of addressing the low energy and lack of motivation common in people experiencing burnout is physical activity and routine.

"Motion creates emotion," she says. "Moving changes your physiology, and when you change your physiology you instantly change the way you feel. You'll get a floor of endorphins (happy chemicals) and this will combat sadness and anxiety. It's also a great way to combat stress and to create a daily routine that helps to keep you feeling anchored and not like all the days drift into one.

"Routine is so important and when our daily habits and routine are changed, we feel uncertain and more anxious. Exercise is a great way to implement some routine into your day, and a daily self care ritual will help keep you resilient and your immunity strong."

Of course diet is also crucial for anyone experiencing burnout. Nourishing food boosts immunity, serotonin, and improves gut health—which is where 90% of our serotonin is produced.

"If you want to be full of energy, zinging through life, then you need to have good gut health to help boost immunity," Tiff says. "Start with wholefoods, limit sugar and processed foods, drink plenty of water, and stay away from chewing gum—it's one of the most irritating things for the gut you can eat."

For more about how to address the symptoms of burnout, consider this expert advice on gut health from our resident dietitians.

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