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Exhausted, Drained, Overwhelmed: How Burnout Is Affecting Work And Life During The Pandemic

Exhausted businessman sitting at desk in office at night (Getty Images)
Exhausted businessman sitting at desk in office at night (Getty Images)

Mental health and addiction therapist Kyle Smith says he drives to work each day with a “death grip” around his steering wheel and his shoulders shrugged to his ears.

His job has led to burnout — a feeling of being overwhelmed, drained and stressed out. The Philadelphia resident says he comes into work with a list of things from two or three weeks ago that he still needs to get done while new tasks pour in.

“I just get the sense of trying to catch my breath,” he says. “Or like you’re underwater and you’re trying to break the surface just to catch a little bit of breath before you have to go back under again. After a while, it’s exhausting, mentally and emotionally draining and spiritually draining.”

Leeda Copley has a similar issue.

“Basically every time I sit down to plan my fall classes, I just want to cry,” the college professor from Oklahoma says.

Things are so bad at work, Copely says many of her colleagues are considering quitting their jobs. At the time of her interview with Here & Now, she was on her way to another farewell reception.

“They’re leaving academia, they’re leaving … they’re just leaving,” she says.

Copely’s colleagues would join the millions of Americans who have already left their jobs.

Karoline Fritz, an office administrator in Colorado, says she doesn’t foresee anything in her “immediate future that’s going to make this burnout better.” And she doesn’t know how to help others either, like the people who bag her groceries or serve her in restaurants.

“There’s only so much a ‘thank you’ can do for the single mom who’s trying to figure out how to stay in her apartment with three kids,” she says.

People need more time off and better pay, she says — but that will only help for so long.

Millions of Americans are experiencing burnout, says Paula Davis, founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute and the author of “Beat the Burnout: Why Teams Hold the Secret to Well-Being and Resilience.”

Davis says the simple formula behind burnout is “too many job demands and too few job resources.” Many employees also lack the motivational and energy components needed in their jobs, like recognition and support from leaders and teams. An unmanageable workload also contributes.

Davis knows the feeling of burnout well. During her seven years practicing law, she didn’t know she was experiencing burnout and had no idea what was happening to her.

She remembers being chronically physically and emotionally exhausted. On Sunday evenings, she would get the “Sunday scaries” and dread Monday morning.

Next came chronic cynicism, where everyone started to annoy Davis. While she was still professional, she recalls a lot of eye-rolling. She also lost confidence and couldn’t see a path for herself within her profession.

It was once she started to go to other people and conduct research that she realized these feelings are known as burnout.

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Most people who are feeling overwhelmed with their work or find themselves in need of a break take one, but is that really useful against burnout? Davis says not always.

“I think that companies who are giving you a week off and time off, I think it’s really good,” Davis says. “I think for people who are just feeling a sense of stress, I think that pause can really help.”

But once you enter that combination of chronic exhaustion and cynicism, she says taking time off will only be a temporary fix.

While people do feel better when they go on vacation, it doesn’t last long once they head back to work. Davis says it’s usually only a few weeks before someone returns to the same level of burnout they felt before taking a break.

Davis says the way to solve burnout is to go to the root of the problem and recognize it’s a systemic issue, not just create solutions for individual people. Core demands like the lack of flexibility and support need to be addressed, she says, along with looking into how teams and leaders function.

The experience of being in the pandemic has changed the way many people think about their work, Davis says. When people reflect on whether they have autonomy and flexibility in their jobs, the answer might be no.

One silver lining to the pandemic, she says, is organizations are finally talking about burnout. It’s always been around, but it’s never really been discussed.

“And now we’re actually putting it front and center and having the right conversations about it.”

Julia Corcoran and Jeannette Muhammad produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Muhammad also adapted this interview for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.