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How to prevent burnout as pandemic fatigue takes its toll

Westend61 via Getty Images

After months of uncertainty, we finally have a rough plan for lifting lockdown restrictions. It’s a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel for many people, who can finally work after months of lost income, see family and friends and make plans that don’t involve a Zoom call.

Although it’s good news, we still have a long way to go before normal life resumes. And for many, life under lockdown has already taken its toll. Psychologists are reporting a rise in “pandemic fatigue” and burnout as many people find the current phase of restrictions harder, with more people feeling exhausted, stressed and unable to cope.

But they’re not the only ones feeling the strain. The constant hum of anxiety has had a significant impact on the general population, including key workers and those who have been working from home, furloughed or who have had to find alternative work because of the shutdown of their sector. All in all, six in ten Brits say they are finding it harder to stay positive day-to-day compared with before the virus, according to a recent Ipsos Mori survey, marking an 8-point increase from November.


“When people experience this kind of unpredictability, uncertainty and the need to apply and adapt to constantly different situations, they feel messed around and start to lose the capacity to feel grounded, and they end up suffering from exhaustion,” says Yuko Nippoda, psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP). “This kind of situation causes burnout as life is so unsettling and disorienting; life is like a rollercoaster.”

Whether you’re a home-worker feeling isolated or a parent homeschooling their child, it has been a trying time for everyone. So how can you prevent burnout as the third lockdown continues?

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“Burnout was identified as an occupational phenomenon in 2019 and it’s important to recognise that we can all be susceptible to it,” says Kirsty Lilley, mental health specialist at the wellbeing charity CABA.

“Interestingly the more conscientious we are, the more we tend to be impacted by it. Therefore, if your standards are exceptionally high, or you would be described as a perfectionist, it can be hard to manage your inner critic and be self-compassionate – all of which can contribute to the experiences of burnout. People can often develop problems in environments of high workload, lack of support and resources to do their job.”

It’s not easy to be kind to ourselves, and for many, we can be our own harshest critics. Although we can all be guilty of this at times, it’s important to recognise that we are living through a pandemic - something none of us have ever had to navigate before.

“This in itself is difficult enough, so be wary of layering additional and unnecessary stress on yourself,” says Lilley. “Self-care is a term that’s banded around a lot, but if used correctly, it is a really important tool in combating the sensation of burnout.

“The problem is that self-care is often used as the last resort and when things get difficult. After a hectic week, we might order a takeout or have a relaxing bath, but to get the full effects of it, we need to be adding self-care practises into our daily routines.”

Self-care is different for each person, but it might involve taking time for yourself during the day, doing exercise at lunchtime, saying “no” more often and making sure your workload is manageable. Essentially, self-care is also about protecting ourselves and setting boundaries.

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“It may feel uncomfortable, but we should never be afraid to be assertive or push back on additional work,” Lilley says. “Many of us have too much on our to-do lists, too much responsibility and, crucially, not enough time to decompress. Maintaining an open dialogue with those around you will ensure that they know what’s keeping you busy and could even offer support.”

Creating a routine can help you feel more grounded and settled, especially through the constant changes as social restrictions begin to life. “As the world faces the uncertain and the unknown, it is important to have something predictable and routine for yourself,” Nippoda says. “Simple things such as listening to the radio, reading a book or watering plants are enough. You just need to feel in control in order to empower yourself.”

When you feel burned out, your energy level is usually low. You may feel irritable, sad or tired, or just out of sorts. The temptation is to power through and keep working, but you need to listen to your body and act accordingly.

It’s not just up to workers to prevent burnout, however. The onus is on employers to look after their staff and support them during these challenging times. This means listening to employees who are struggling, making sure people have a reasonable workload and making sure people feel respected and supported.

“For a workplace to tackle burnout, it needs to create an environment that doesn’t overly focus on individualism and competitiveness,” Lilley says. “Many of us now work in large corporations, where it can be easy to get lost. It’s important that we are driven and motivated by collective good, as well as personal incentives.”

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