Is Burnout is the New Normal? Navigating What’s Next

The other day I went into the office for the first time in over two weeks. I had been picking up the mail every few days, but hadn’t spent more than five minutes there. Though my commute is an easy one, traffic was heavier than I expected. This made me uncharacteristically nervous. What were all these people doing out? Didn’t they know we are in quarantine? I made a point of keeping more than the usual amount of space from other cars.  

As I pulled into the empty parking lot, I realized I was leery of going inside. Not scared, exactly, but hesitant. Should I even be out of the house? I’m usually pretty brave—at least I can fake it. What was this all about?

The feeling was doubly weird because I LOVE my office. It is professional and inviting, well-appointed, and absolutely perfect for me. Not like the closet I had before. What’s more, I share the space with Wendy Anderson, a business attorney. She and I have been friends and colleagues for years, and we enjoy being suite mates—the give and take, the exchange of ideas, the camaraderie. I thought going back to the office would feel like coming home. The anxiety in the pit of my stomach told me otherwise.

I was the only one there when I arrived. I started by frantically wiping everything down. Every door handle, mouse, light switch, and surface in the office. I hadn’t even done that at home. Why was I so anxious?

I slowly got into my morning routine, but my rhythm was off. I wasn’t quite focused. I couldn’t instantly find what I needed, whether on the computer or on my desk. Everything was just that much more of an effort. This was not as familiar and comforting as I thought it would be.

During the crisis, my days have been busy with phone calls, policy rewrites, and HR consulting on every level imaginable. This day was no different. By 8:15 both my office line and my cell phone were ringing. I finally got into the rhythm of the day, stayed out of the online news rabbit hole, and got some work done. My to-do list for the next day filled up, and by 6:00 I was ready to head home. I should have felt a sense of accomplishment, but all I felt was that low-level dread I couldn’t shake.

I was exhausted when I walked in the house. My husband fed me (dear man) and I went nearly comatose watching TV until I gave up at 8:00 and headed for the bedroom. That’s early, even for me. I was dead asleep by 8:30, and up again the next morning at 5:00. A pretty good night’s sleep ordinarily, but why was I still so tired?

I thought long and hard about the times I had felt this way before, and then it hit me. Burnout. I was in crisis mode, literally, running at Mach 5 with my hair on fire, and I didn’t know what was happening one day to the next. I was burning out.

Burnout is not just about working hard and getting tired. I like working hard, and on a good day of work like that I sleep like a baby and feel refreshed in the morning. Burnout is a combination of effects—the double whammy of fear and exhaustion. Fear is in and of itself exhausting, and exhaustion is more than being worn out. It is hamster-stuck-on-the-wheel, galley-slaves-chained-to-the-oars tired, the kind of tired you never get a break from. It’s when your brain won’t shut down, and you’re working even in your sleep.

I’ve been working in my sleep for months—thinking about what’s happening in the world, in my business, with my clients, with my family. It’s my job to be informed, and I don’t want to miss anything. What’s the governor doing in May? Can my clients bring their people back yet? If they do, should they all go back to the office all at once? How is the government assisting the transition? What can I do to serve my clients better? These thoughts Never. Go. Away. They are with me 24/7 and have been since February. I can’t unplug. I watch TV and think, “They’re standing way too close to each other!” Or I read a book and wonder, “Did they wash their hands before they did that?”

How can you get a break when you’re working even in your sleep? Combine that with the strain of being separated from your loved ones and oh-by-the-way the fear of contracting a life-threatening illness and, well now you have Burnout with a capital B.

I’m sure I’m not the only one. At least my business is still up and running. How about the business owner whose pipeline has dried up or hasn’t been deemed an essential business? How about the laid off employee navigating the unemployment website that hasn’t been updated since the early 2000s? How about the young kid whose routine of school and activities and friends has gone out the window? The couples working from home while “homeschooling” their kids? I know I’m not alone.

I’ve been burned out before, and I was always proud of how I powered through it. In fact, I’ve talked myself out of being burned out many times in my career. Just wake up, put your head down, and get on with it. Let’s get back to normal.

Why can’t I do that this time?

Well, this time there seems to be so much more at stake—or maybe I’m older and wiser enough to realize what’s at stake. This crisis is literally life or death, and many of us are in perpetual flight or fight mode. This is exhausting, depleting. Our bodies are not built to take this kind of stress. We need time to rest and heal, to recharge. We’re just not getting that time. Add the stress of returning to an uncertain workplace to the stress of the pandemic itself, and no wonder we’re all burned out.

Is there going to be anything like normal to return to? We don’t know, and that anxiety multiplies the burnout. Will we have to wear masks for weeks or months? How long should we maintain social distancing? When is it safe to travel to a family wedding?

We don’t know. None of us—business owners, employees, health care workers, students, teachers, government officials, and people in general—have been on this road before. No one knows what’s coming next. How will the virus respond to the heat of summer and then the cooling of fall?  What decisions will be made by officials with conflicting interests? What new rules will we all have to understand and follow?

I don’t see the general anxiety abating anytime soon.

As we bring our employees slowly back into the workplace, let’s be conscious that they’re very likely as burned out as we all are. They are going to be anxious and afraid of being around people again, and anxious and afraid for the people they leave at home. They’re simply going to be anxious and afraid.

How do we negotiate this brave new world? With grace and respect. Everyone is entitled to their feelings – don’t tell them they aren’t. Respect their fear and anxiety. Yes, you have a business to run; yes, we all want to get back to normal, whatever that is. But forcing a return to normal before its time will only cause cracks in the foundation we’re trying to rebuild. Proceed with grace, respect and—patience (not my strong suit). Slow and steady wins the race. How can you, as a business owner and leader, respect your employees in the next weeks and months and proceed with grace and strategic patience? Call me, and together we’ll figure out what works best for you and your business. Though I’m a little worse for burnout myself, that means I get it, and I’m here to help. In fact, knowing that my experience and knowledge can benefit others goes a long way toward recharging my batteries. Let me help you recharge yours.