For finance professionals working demanding jobs, the risk of burnout can be a challenge in the best of times. But in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people now find themselves suddenly thrust into the position of having to balance their work obligations with new competing demands — home-schooling children or caring for sick relatives, for example — in a time of deep economic uncertainty and collective anxiety.
All these additional stressors mean that for many, the risk of burnout is at an all-time high, according to J. Ryan Fuller, Ph.D., a psychologist and the executive director of New York Behavioral Health.
“It’s a difficult time for everyone, and social distancing has added another level of complexity,” he said. “People can’t go to the gym or to a yoga class. They’re missing those weekly dinners with family, or their AA group — all of the supports that involve leaving the house have been taken away, at a time that we need them most.”
The World Health Organization defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”, characterised by three dimensions: Feeling exhausted or depleted of energy, feeling disconnected from or cynical about work, and reduced professional efficacy.
Lauren Florko, Ph.D., an organisational stress researcher and consultant based in Vancouver, said that burnout tends to happen when people’s needs aren’t being met — particularly the psychological need to feel competent, the need for control, and social needs.
“As people are trying to integrate their work and home lives, they are feeling challenged on all levels,” she said. “They may not feel competent because they aren’t able to work as effectively or efficiently as they normally would. They are working remotely so they aren’t getting that normal social interaction, and I think it’s safe to say that no one feels in control.”
Luckily, burnout is preventable. Here are some tips from the pros about how to protect your mental health in the midst of a global pandemic.
Create a routine. These are not normal times. Even so, Fuller recommends creating a routine that approximates your pre-COVID-19 schedule as much as possible.
“I focus on biological hygiene,” he said. “Make sure that sleeping, eating, and physical activity are as close to regular levels and timings as they were previously.”
In addition, Fuller advises scheduling activities that are pleasurable as well as activities that involve “mastery”, which he defines as learning a new skill or increasing fluency in an existing skill.
“This is key,” he said. “One of the most critical studies for preventing and treating depression showed that if you just focus on scheduling in these two types of activities, you get some reduction.”
What this looks like will vary significantly from person to person: A single person living alone might reasonably be able to fit in a Netflix binge and an hour of yoga three times per week. On the other hand, for a professional working from home with two kids, a “mastery” activity might involve 10 minutes per day of Duolingo and 20 minutes of reading before bed every couple of days, or a few sun salutations.
“It’s important to be realistic, and not think about this in a black-and-white way,” he said. “I don’t want people to think, well, since I can’t do five days of yoga, I won’t do anything. It’s better to schedule three days of activities of short duration each week than nothing at all.”
Additionally, it’s important to be deliberate about creating hard boundaries between work and home, according to Florko. For people who have separate work and personal phones, that might mean turning off their work phone. For others, it could be scheduling nonwork time on their diary and letting their work contacts know when they won’t be reachable.
“It’s really important to find ways to detach from work,” she said. “The key is to completely physically and emotionally disconnect. If your mind keeps wandering back while you’re doing another activity, you’re not going to be able to recharge.”
Set realistic goals. The challenges people face when trying to integrate their work and home lives will be different for each person: Some may have trouble adapting to the technology that allows them to work remotely, while others may struggle with loneliness, marital conflict, or caring for children. But one thing is universal: You probably aren’t going to be as productive as you were before the pandemic. Know this, and adjust your expectations accordingly, advises Florko.
“One way to feel more competent is to be realistic about what you can achieve,” she said. “Maybe before the pandemic, you could do five things in a day, but now you can only do three, and the two tasks you are missing are more about creating greater home balance — and that’s OK.”
Monitor yourself for signs of burnout. Preventing burnout is far easier than dealing with its consequences — and that requires active self-awareness. Fuller advises closely monitoring yourself for symptoms, which can include feelings of exhaustion or fatigue, problems concentrating, or being short-fused and easily triggered in ways that aren’t typical.
Because burnout can creep up on people, it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for behaviours that may indicate the stress is beginning to affect you. For example, if you tend to have a couple glasses of wine or are prone to overeating when stressed, try to keep track of how much alcohol you are drinking or how much you are snacking. Or if you’re prone to depression, which manifests as oversleeping, keep track of when you are going to bed and getting up, and how much you are napping.
“It’s really about paying attention to the emotions behind these behaviours,” said Fuller. “Ideally, I want my clients to keep a log, where they write down the behaviours, and then also identify and quantify the emotion leading to it.”
Fuller also recommends that people struggling with anxiety or other triggers consider practising cognitive behavioural therapy — which involves cultivating an awareness of unhelpful behaviours and thoughts and creating healthier thought patterns and coping strategies — or practising meditation.
“I recommend mindfulness exercises,” said Fuller. “They may not be able to change their thinking, but mindfulness allows them to have the same stressful thoughts and feelings and get distance, so they can be more effective at work.”
Cultivate self-care strategies. Self-awareness is also critical to creating sustainable self-care and coping strategies, according to Florko. Someone prone to anxiety, for example, might do a 10-minute meditation or breathing exercises when they begin to feel triggered. Another person might be more prone to loneliness and need to create opportunities for social interaction.
“Getting social needs met is tricky right now, because of social distancing, but there are still things you can do,” said Florko. “Like at work, you can ask if a colleague wants to eat lunch together over Zoom, or chat with colleagues over Slack.”
Getting some sort of exercise — even if it’s just a walk around the block between meetings — can also act as a “restart” when people notice that they are beginning to feel stressed.
“It’s about awareness, and being able to take a step back,” said Florko. “If you are able to reflect and recognise that you are suffering from symptoms consistent with burnout, you can start to begin to create more sustainable patterns.”
Get help if you need it. Most people are feeling some form of stress or anxiety at the moment, and some may need professional support. Many therapists are available over the phone and Skype, and offer rates on a sliding scale, according to Fuller.
For those who lack the means to pay for therapy sessions, Fuller recommends reaching out to their human resources department, which may be able to plug employees into internal resources that can help.
“Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of telecoaching over Zoom for teams in different industries to give them concrete tools they can use to manage their stress,” he said, “Right now, more and more HR teams are looking for ways to make sure their teams are motivated and productive in this time when there is so much uncertainty.”
— Malia Politzer is a freelance writer based in Spain. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.