Between burnout and the bends: Cascading crises have created a burnout epidemic

The lines between work and home are blurrier than ever, making many feel that we can't stop and rest

Published June 6, 2020 2:00PM (EDT)

Exhausted businesswoman having a headache at her desk (Getty Images)
Exhausted businesswoman having a headache at her desk (Getty Images)

Americans'  work and parenting expectations have been increasing in the past decade, to the point that a huge portion of Americans now work well over 50 hours per week. Worse, the number of hours that parents spent caring for children has been rising in that time, too. "Burnout" is a commonly used word, with fuzzy meanings, to describe how we feel. But scholars since the 1970s have defined burnout as having three main symptoms: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, which is a cynical mix of low trust and care for others, and low feelings of accomplishment, even with lots of work getting done.

Do those feelings sound familiar? A 2018 Gallup study found that 1 in 5 American workers experienced burnout very often or always. And burnout seems to especially affect women: a 2019 Harris Poll survey found that 63% of women said that after handling their family's needs in the morning, they already felt like they had worked an entire day.

Enter COVID-19, and what was smoldering is now a five alarm fire. Workers have found themselves increasingly overwhelmed as they have juggled their jobs while adapting to a traumatic situation that often included worrying about, or caring for, sick loved ones. Although it's true that some workers now have short commutes from their bedroom to their makeshift office in the laundry room, the lines between work and home have been blurrier than ever, making people feel like that they cannot stop and rest because there is too much to do. Many full-time workers have been in charge of homeschooling children, cooking and cleaning for people who are suddenly home all the time, and trying to keep their families safe. These pressures have been magnified for essential workers, who have been leaving their home to do their jobs, at personal risk to their health. Even if they are well-paid, like doctors, they are still facing time poverty. And many essential workers receive low wages, which adds to their pressures.

Even as many states have relaxed their pandemic restrictions, the major time inequalities we have seen in this pandemic will remain. Many Americans have felt high pressure the past few months as they juggle work expectations, extra housework, and — if they are parents — round-the-clock childcare plus homeschooling. Being expected to go back to work with so much uncertainty (and still without childcare) will only increase their time poverty. On the other hand, many others are finding themselves with too much time, and not enough to do. Although being time rich seems like a luxury, it can also be stressful.

Such high pressures and demands, along with low resources to deal with them, are a recipe for burnout. In my forthcoming book, "Culture of Burnout: American Life in an Age of Increasing Expectations," I argue that burnout has been increasing over time in the U.S. because of intense work and parenting demands. Increasing expectations of financial success over time, along with rising perfectionism, have also likely played a role by pushing us toward more productivity at work and more child cultivation at home. These increased pressures have crowded out time for activities that buffer people from burnout, like socializing, exercise, spending time in nature, and arts participation.

Each of these buffers were restricted during stay-at-home orders, and pressures and demands are higher than ever. So, burnout has likely increased in the past couple of months. Indeed, a recent survey found that 45% of US workers say that they are burned out, with over half of those saying that this is due to COVID-19. Their top pressures are an excessive workload (45%) and juggling their personal and professional lives (35%), according to one survey. Yet, looking at each burnout symptom individually, things are more complex.

Emotional exhaustion is the key burnout symptom. A recent survey found that a majority (54%) of workers reported being more emotionally exhausted since the outbreak, with even more reporting increased feelings of anxiety (57%) and stress (67%). Stress levels among parents are much higher than adults without children. Tellingly, Google searches for exhaustion have risen since mid-March, when stay-at-home orders began in most states. 

More seriously, 42% of workers say their mental health has declined during this time, and 34% of Americans are now showing clinical symptoms of depression or anxiety. A US mental health helpline reported an 891% increase in calls this year compared to last year.

The second burnout symptom, depersonalization, involves feelings of low empathy and trust. Empathy and trust were already decreasing over time in the US before the pandemic, but since then, the patterns are more complex. On the one hand, 75% of US workers have felt more socially isolated since the pandemic began, and Americans have reported low trust in political leaders recently. Yet when directly asked about empathy, an Ipsos poll found that Americans actually see society as slightly more empathic since mid-March this year (from 43% to 50%). And the Pew Research Center found that Americans are now a bit more trusting of others in general, compared to pre-pandemic. They are also more trusting of doctors and scientists.

The last burnout symptom is a low sense of accomplishment. Expectations for success had been increasing before the pandemic, and since then it seems like workers (and their bosses) are not giving themselves slack to adjust to this global crisis. A recent survey found, for example, that 45% of US workers have felt less productive at work since the pandemic. Yet in the years leading up to the pandemic, the US saw an unprecedented rise in worker productivity. American workers' productivity (how much they produce per hour) increased 69.6% from 1979 to 2018. This helped to fuel CEO bank accounts rather than typical worker paychecks, which only rose 11.6% across the same time.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released numbers on worker productivity for the first quarter of 2020, and not surprisingly, they are down. (This number only reflects current workers, not the unemployed.) When the stock market takes a big dip, it's called a correction. Maybe massively increased productivity expectations were problematic, and we could reinterpret this as a time for productivity correction. As writer Jenny Jaffe recently observed, "You're only unproductive by the standards of the world we lived in two months ago. And that world is gone now."

There are extra burdens on parents at this time, with a University of Michigan study finding that along with spending much more time with their children, parents were also yelling and having more conflicts with their children since coronavirus. The pressures are disproportionately affecting mothers, compared to fathers. It was already difficult for working mothers to juggle their many responsibilities before the pandemic, and now it is impossible.

Psychology professor Emily Fyfe has two children, ages 2 and 6 years old. As a developmental psychologist, she is an expert on conducting research on children. So she used that skillset to document what happened in her home from April 19 to 25. The results of her "study" found that her children called on her about 138 times every day, which is about once every 5 minutes. Despite the fact that she and her partner are spending virtually equal time with their children, the children called on their dad only about 51 times per day, which is still a crazy-making once per 14 minutes. There is no one to blame in this situation, but it is an eye-opening window into exactly what the unholy trinity of working from home, childcare, and homeschooling looks like. If a highly educated mother in a relatively secure job is facing impossible demands, imagine the compounding effects of those who are also struggling financially. Imagine compounding this further with working outside the home, at the risk of getting sick or spreading the virus to your family.

Too much free time can be stressful

At the same time as there have been increased expectations for work and parenting among many Americans, many others are the opposite of time poor. But being rich in time has its own potential consequences, especially for those who just a couple months ago were feeling burnout pressures. This other side of the coin is equally dangerous. Decompression sickness, also known as "the bends," affects divers who come up too quickly after their lungs are under increasing pressure in deep water. It can even cause death if it is not carefully managed. Arguably, many are now facing the psychological version of this.

Nearly 43 million Americans have filed for unemployment since March, and the May unemployment rate was 13.3%. And this does not count others with extra time on their hands, such as workers with reduced hours, or even childless full-time workers. These people have found themselves with hours of free time and difficulty filling it. A recent survey of mental health issues related to COVID-19 found that unemployed workers were more likely to experience mental health declines (48.5%) than other workers (41.5%). Furloughed workers, those temporarily laid off, were 37% more likely than laid off workers to report mental health declines, likely due to the uncertainty of the situation.

What does decompression sickness look like? Symptoms can include boredom, distress, malaise, a fuzzy mind, and a feeling of drifting or floating through days. Some symptoms may be more physical, including fatigue, headaches, and gastrointestinal symptoms. Hours go by unaccounted for, and minutes seem to screech to a halt. Anxiety-numbing behaviors are common, from TV binging, to eating comfort foods, to extreme clean-a-thons, to returning to teenage music favorites. As with "exhausted," there have also been increased google searches for "bored" since March. 

Research on the effects of unemployment finds that it leads to decreased mental health. Of course, the financial shock likely plays a role, but the bends is more than just worrying about money. It's about the suddenness of skidding to a stop when life has been in hyperdrive for too long. It's about trying to maintain a sense of purpose and identity, when so much of our self-definition is about work. The first thing we ask when meeting a new person is, "What do you do?" When that central identity is stripped away, what is left?

Retirement is another time when people are at risk for the bends. Although many older adults enjoy the transition from work to retirement, for some, this can be difficult as they lose status and roles. There can be an increased risk for depression, or "retirement blues." Finding ways to bridge the transition, such as part-time work or volunteering can be helpful. Similarly, although most people enjoy their vacations, about 3% regularly get "vacation sickness" for this same reason—decompressing after too much busyness is a shock to the system. And as newly homeschooling parents are aware, our children, who used to have busy and highly structured lives, definitely have the bends.

To outside observers, some of these people may look okay, but it is easy to see through their social media sourdough loaves and Instagram green lawns. Striving toward perfection at a time like this is doing something just to do something. It's a frantic treading of water rather than smooth calm strokes to get to the other side of this. 

I know someone who has worked at Target throughout this crisis, while also attending university full-time. He is fighting off burnout as many of his customers are fighting off the bends. He has noticed the increase in his customers buying large amounts of alcohol. His observation is on trend: alcohol sales were up 26% in stores and 477% online at the end of April, compared to last April. His explanation is that so many people were "worked to the bone" before this crisis, and now that they suddenly have so much time on their hands, they are struggling to know what to do with themselves. TV watching has also gained in popularity, with Americans watching 8 hours more per week recently compared to early March. Both of these have a numbing effect that makes time disappear.

The premature opening of the economy after protests with signs like "Give me liberty or give me death" hints that some people may prefer their former harried lives in which they could hardly breathe from the smoke of themselves burning out, even at the risk of serious illness or death to themselves or their loved ones. Such extreme examples are not too common, fortunately, with the majority of Americans still social distancing. But they are worth considering when we think about what liberty means.

At the root of the bends is a feeling of no longer having a role, of not being important or useful. It doesn't help that we literally call many of the jobs that have been cut "non-essential." Maybe we need to find meaningful activities to fill our days, besides work. Virtual socializing, creative volunteering, and new hobbies will help us to face potential future waves of this virus.

As for those of us teetering on the edge of burnout, we should realize that many of us were not free before the pandemic wreaked havoc on our daily routines. And although we are more physically restricted now, we could take this time to re-imagine what a good life looks like. For me, it doesn't involve ping-ponging between burnout and the bends, and instead, is filled with meaningful moments that are connected together with a common purpose. We need to lower expectations of ourselves and others, and then practice doing the limbo under them. Survival and coping are good enough.

Burnout is a result of time poverty and the bends is a result of too much leisure time. One solution is obvious when reading this sentence: those who have too much time could try to lighten someone else's load. Maybe they could drop off a fresh loaf of bread to a neighbor after posting it on Instagram? Joking aside, I have a friend who was recently experiencing the bends, and every time we talked, I could hardly breathe because of the impossible demands on me as a parent who works full-time. She offered to be a virtual math tutor for my daughter, which has given me one hour at a time to think and focus. Everyone feels good at the end of that hour (and my daughter learns a lot). Many of us know people in one of the two boats, and we could look for such win-win situations in our lives.

I've definitely been fighting off burnout recently, but this time has also made me skeptical of accomplishment for its own sake. Seeing the expectations from each separate role (parent, home school teacher, cook, cleaner, college teacher, research scientist) piled on top of one another is comical. And it's even more apparent that this is an impossible equation that doesn't have to be solved. I'm not okay, you are not okay, and that is okay. Let us begin with that, and move forward to create lives that are lived in each imperfect moment, rather than in the unrealistic bubble of perfection that was burst in March.

By Sara Konrath

Dr. Sara Konrath is a social psychologist who directs the Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research at Indiana University. She is the author of "Culture of Burnout: American Life in an Age of Increasing Expectations" (forthcoming from Oxford University Press) and numerous scientific journal articles and media publications. Konrath is an Associate Professor at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

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Burnout Commentary Mental Health Pandemic Parenting