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Uncertainty and Extreme Workload Are Burnout’s Best Friends

The global pandemic of COVID-19 and related measures have had a major effect on our society.  How does our mental state cope with the new situation? We talked about it with Marie Součková.

How did, in your opinion, COVID-19 affect overall mental health and our mental wellbeing?

Already in late 2020, we have seen an increase in the incidence of mental issues, mood disorders, anxiety, insomnia, depression and suicide. Existing mental problems are getting worse. As a society, we face factors of discomfort such as uncertainty, the unknown, unpredictability and perceived uncontrollability of the situation. Each of us adapts to these stressors differently. The context is also an important factor:

  • the older population and members of the “at-risk group” not only fear for their health and lives but many of them are also suffering from social isolation due to being separated from their loved ones;
  • front-line workers are exposed to extraordinary workload both in terms of time and physical demands, increased health risks and mental stress;
  • employees working remotely are struggling with the new demands for self-management, work organization, communication and problem solving;
  • temporarily and permanently laid-off workers are affected by the disturbance or loss of certainty and an order in life;
  • self-employed people, who lost their livelihood, may be facing existential problems and succumbing to despair due to the feeling of not “being good enough” because they did not make it through the situation;
  • some entrepreneurs have to deal with financial losses, lay-offs or bankruptcies;
  • partners and parents of children are experiencing “cabin fevers”, the need to make their job and their children’s teaching and the overall more intensive life at home work;
  • children miss social interaction, structured daily routines and they are exposed to higher tensions at home – of course, it may look different in many families;
  • and then there are people among us who are fairly unaffected by the situation emotionally, they continue to live their lives the way they used to or they may be even benefiting from the situation.

What we all have in common is that if we want to feel better, we need to mentally break free from the position of a “victim” of circumstances and focus on (albeit relatively limited) realm of influence. So, I need to focus on what I can do for myself and my loved ones right here and right now to make myself/them feel better and help us make it through this. We should not waste our mental capacity on what we cannot directly influence (measures imposed by the government, behavior of others etc.), and instead we should focus on what we can influence (our body’s defense system and health prevention, selection of sources of news, scope and form of activity on social media, meaningful spent free time, ...).

In general, the belief that going to the doctor equals being crazy is now gone. Do you see the same shift in thinking in companies when it comes to mental health care for employees?

Yes, just as companies are now used to investing in promoting their employees’ physical health, mental support is finding its place among employee benefits in difficult times. In companies, which were providing their employees with psychological consultations before – usually for “special cases” – we are seeing an increase in the use of such services. There are companies that have not provided this care but are now seriously considering it because they are starting to be immediately affected by the adverse effects of their employees’ mental struggles. Burnout and its prevention are topics that have been popular in companies for many years.

Are women or men more affected by burnout? Which group is the most endangered, in your opinion?

A meta-analysis of 183 studies published in the 2010 Journal of Vocational Behavior did not find a gender-related incidence of burnout. It only found proof that women slightly more often succumb to emotional exhaustion while men are slightly more likely to suffer from depersonalization, both of which are symptoms of burnout.

Particularly vulnerable groups typically include people working in health care, law enforcement, social workers and other helping professions, and in education. In general, there is also an increased risk in other forms of working with people – business and sales, call centers, people management etc. Burnout does not keep away from people in management positions, expert positions, students and families taking care of children and the household. Generally, these are positions, in which people due to the nature of the work give a lot to others and do not receive adequate (positive) feedback in the form of tangible results and the fulfilled purpose of their work, praise from the company etc. Burnout occurs in those who have been expending more mental energy then they have been able to recharge for a long time. People, who are most passionate about their job, are exposed to the greatest risk of burnout.

What are the stages of burnout? Which feelings are typical for them and how can we recognize the breaking point when we need to pull the emergency brake to avoid burnout?

I will start by describing the condition that precedes burnout. It is usually a considerable “enthusiasm for work” and sometimes the associated desire to “save the world” accompanied by an illusory belief of one’s own power. This is followed by a period of excessive exhaustion which – if recovery is postponed – turns into deepening exhaustion on a physical and mental level. An energy deficit makes an appearance. At this point, it is still possible to pull the brake, but it requires a real detachment from work and deep rest, ideally lasting several weeks – a week-long vacation is not enough.

In the next phase, feelings of alienation, a cynical attitude towards work and the people at work – it can be patients, clients, customers... – emerge. Ideals are lost and resignation begins – a feeling of helplessness, vanity, loss of purpose are starting to appear. The person is “on autopilot”, the initial high level of engagement is disappearing, actual aversion accompanied by physical symptoms (stomach issues, headache, back pain etc.) may appear – on the way to work, when opening emails, during meetings with colleagues, when in contact with clients....That point is a true “make-or-break” situation.

The person has an opportunity to protect themselves from “burnout” if they really drastically change their course – I know people who managed to turn things around by taking a few months’ break and reassessing their approach to work. Rest alone is not enough because if the person does not change anything about their approach to handling workload and expending energy, they will very quickly return to the critical state.

For this reason, it is necessary to gain more distance and establish new habits resulting from a mindset reconfiguration. The final stage is a significant decline in or even a complete loss of perceived competency and real performance – inability to head to work at all, inability to concentrate, "forgetting", slacking and ignoring assigned tasks. And this is accompanied by worsening symptoms of exhaustion.

Mgr. Marie Součková, psycholožka

How is this condition treated? Can burnout come back in the future?

Change must be made at two levels – satisfying your needs “right here and right now” (rest, sleep, freeing oneself from duties etc.) and right after that proceeding with deeper causes – identifying patterns of thinking, experiencing and behavior that contributed to the person’s burnout. You may think that it is a matter of external factors (such as the high-risk professions mentioned above) but regardless of the circumstances people take their own specific stance to them and choose their response.

You can choose to respond in a way that increases the likelihood of burnout, but you can also react differently.
Even if it may have to come at the cost of “recognition from the surroundings” which is the foundation of perceived self-worth for some people. Anyone, who is dependent on pleasing others, proving themselves and rescuing or on praise for their extraordinary results, faces an increased risk of once working their way to burnout. That means that relapses depend on self-reflection and a change in our own approach to work – whether it is paid or unpaid work, work in the public interest or for the benefit of our loved ones.

What would you recommend to companies as prevention?

To realize that working under stress contributes to higher performance to some extent but the level and duration of the effect of stress on our bodies is crucial. One can adapt well to fluctuations, but continuous excessive pressure leaves a mark on one’s health. The fact that the consequences are not visible immediately does not mean that they have not been accumulating and will not come back to haunt us in the future. Companies can promote a culture that takes the value of employees' health seriously – by encouraging people to take an interest in and care of themselves, both physically and mentally, as these are inseparably interconnected systems.

Leaders and influencers in organizations can inspire others to talk openly about their needs and not be afraid to share their problems. HR employees can become ambassadors for new employee benefits – mental health programs such as Soulmio that provide access to psychological consultations, counseling or psychotherapy, participation in prevention workshops, etc. They can invest in development programs that teach people to work with stress, emotions and their energy. Prevention is more effective, cheaper and more pleasant than treatment.

How can we prevent burnout?

We must definitely refine our values, needs and motives – what do I actually need from my job, what makes sense to me? We must assess the balance between what we put into our work (what I give up through work) and what I gain from work (what I get back from work). How does it contribute to my intention to “live a happy life” (or however you define it)? We can also realize that we are dependent on the judgement of others and the expressions of gratitude from people around us. To what extent are we willing to overlook our needs in order to satisfy the needs, requirements or (assumed) expectations of others?

Resolution does not necessarily mean limiting one’s activity – our attitude and mindset at work are the key. Are we in the role of someone who feels strong, full of energy and wants to share their resources with others? Or do we take on the role of a victim who does everything in their power for others while secretly blaming them for not reciprocating as they would like them to? Advice, such as paying more attention to rest, recovery and sleep, going on holiday regularly – for at least two weeks at a time, and finding sources of fulfillment of meaning and self-worth outside of work, is not completely useless, but it is not all-powerful without a different mindset and approach to work.

Why does, in your opinion, psychology have an important place in companies? What can it prevent?

Psychology finds its place early on starting with personnel strategy, recruitment, employee development, and of course care for their mental wellbeing which is the essential prerequisite for a successful long-term relationship between employees and employers. At the economic level, we can, for example, prevent increased turnover and associated costs, losses caused by labor inefficiencies and lost profits. At the human level, we prevent dissatisfaction, tension, conflict and excessive exhaustion, which can also lead to the aforementioned burnout. By using psychological support, companies can help employees improve their resilience, long-term performance and satisfaction (not only) at work.

People often notice that something is up with a person close to them. How can someone, who is not an expert, help a colleague or friend who is at some stage of burnout?  

It is important to monitor changes. If a person has always been "cynical", it is not a sign of acute burning out. However, if it concerns a person who was always hot for their work, gave it their all and suddenly was overwhelmed by pessimism and a resigned attitude, it is a red flag. Open, empathetic communication, which should definitely not sound like an accusation, helps.

People, who struggle with burnout, tend to be quite demanding of themselves and additional pressure from them outside will definitely not help them. On the contrary, they need to slow down, create a safe space and be accepted with the approach that their reduced enthusiasm for work or limited performance are not something that they should be “fighting” right now. On the contrary, this must be accepted as a useful source of information from our wise body saying that change is necessary. People with a strong urge to “save others” or “prove something” need to find certainty within themselves that they are worthy even “without performing”. That allows them to listen to the needs of their body and psyche which they stopped listening to, and give them priority.

Marie, how do you rest?

I can relax perfectly, for example, while having a massage. In this context, I have to mention that pleasant physical contact releases oxytocin, an anti-stress hormone. The best activity for clearing my head is walking in the park or jogging, ideally in the company of my favorite music. In addition, I get incredibly recharged in nature, whether it is walking in the woods, snorkeling in the sea or watching stars in the sky from the peaks of mountains.

In recent years, I have been enjoying several weeks-long vacations in destinations with national parks and a truly magical landscape. I do yoga, practice mindfulness and listen to relaxation music on a nearly daily basis and I like to be pulled into the world of virtual reality and games. Well, I also enjoy my regular dose of laughter which I get from my boyfriend, colleagues, friends and other close people – those, who know me, know.

Mgr. Marie SoučkováMgr. Marie Součková  has specialized primarily in work psychology, competency diagnostics and soft skills development for more than 10 years. She uses her extensive experience from the corporate as well as the start-up environment. Marie specializes in psychodiagnostics in the employee selection and development, work behavior and its changes, communication within a team, and working with emotions.

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