Whether you’re working remotely or have continued to report to the statehouse during the COVID-19 pandemic, you and your colleagues have been in a stressful situation and may be feeling the effects of burnout. How do you know—and what can you do?
First, Recognize the Signs
Burnout has long been thought of as connected to work. But Melissa Furman, a career coach and Augusta University business professor with a master’s degree in professional counseling, wants to expand that definition. Furman considers burnout a “state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion from prolonged emotionally stressful situations.” It’s typically “caused by things you can’t control or feel like you can’t control,” she says. Like a global pandemic. Or the constant barrage of natural disasters and mass shootings of the past year—not to mention the despair over how many more times these events will occur.
Furman suggests a self-check for the following symptoms:
- Physical exhaustion.
- Emotional extremes: ping-ponging between anger, giddiness and sadness.
- Extreme negativity.
- Inability to accomplish tasks.
- Going through the motions.
- Inability to get a good night’s sleep.
- Lack of patience.
- Inability to be compassionate and/or empathetic.
- Rude or overly assertive behavior.
Anyone who can check off most of the list is probably experiencing burnout. And, while stress is different from burnout, the strong negative emotions associated with stress can lead to burnout.
For example, working on a project with a looming deadline can result in long hours and added stress, which can lead to anxiety and exhaustion. If emotions connected with the project over a prolonged period are primarily negative, then burnout can result. Experiencing positive emotions such as excitement most likely means that stress and exhaustion have yet to give way to burnout.
The first step is recognizing and acknowledging the symptoms of burnout. The next step is realizing the status quo is unacceptable: You need to change something—because burnout can affect work performance as well as mental and physical health. Once you’ve committed to making changes, here are some recommendations for coping with burnout.
Address Basic Needs
Furman suggests first taking care of the most basic needs as outlined in psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: safety, security and physical well-being.
How are you feeling, physically and mentally? Is an old knee injury flaring up? Make time for a physical therapy appointment. More headaches than usual? Be sure to drink enough water, do a posture check and take breaks from your computer screens.
Feeling unsafe? Talk to a source of support—a mentor, colleague or mental health professional, Furman says. If your workplace doesn’t feel safe, would a change in routine, schedule or location make a difference? Is there someone at work who can help you explore this?
Self-care doesn’t work if you’re the only person in your life who prioritizes your well-being, says Emily Nagoski, who with her sister, Amelia Nagoski, co-wrote the book “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle.” “Self-care requires a bubble of protection of other people who value your well-being at least as highly as you do,” Emily Nagoski told Brené Brown on the podcast “Unlocking Us.”
Identify What Makes You Happy
What is your current level of happiness? If you aren’t sure, try to remember the last time you felt happy. What about it felt good? Make time to do something fun, even if that means a change in priorities. “We feel burned out when something out of our control is our top priority,” Furman says. “Take a step back and ask, ‘Does the pandemic still need to be my top priority? I’m vaccinated. So what can I make a bigger priority?’” How about exercise, a night away or spending time with family and friends?
Work-wise, regular reminders about why you value your profession can help to combat negative feelings. Curt Stedron, the director of legislative training for NCSL, advises that we “reconnect to our mission or purpose constantly. Seeing the big reason behind our task list helps motivate us.”
Decide What to Change
Molly McAllister, training and staff development coordinator for the Connecticut General Assembly, has noticed staffers responding to the pandemic in different ways, from overworking to being disengaged. In between are those who enjoy working from home because they’ve successfully established a routine, she says. They recognize the advantages: more time to walk the dog before work, fuzzy slippers all day, lunch on the porch.
“Routine is really important,” McAllister says. “We’re missing our start, stop and transition times.” She advises creating a new work space and routine that includes breaks, even if that just means closing a laptop and putting it away.
• Find connections and support
McAllister created an online training program in response to the pandemic that begins with her “New World Ground Rules.” The first: a reminder to “practice loving kindness.” Ask colleagues how you can support them, she suggests. A mutual exchange of support can be beneficial for both individuals and the organization as a whole.
It’s also important to know that everyone understands if your internet is spotty, your dog is barking or your child needs to sit on your lap, she says. “Whatever it is you have going on, we get it.”
Connection to colleagues has always been a close second to professional development in terms of training benefits, but “in a remote environment, that connection is more important than ever,” McAllister says. “We’re not getting the support we typically do from colleagues at work. People aren’t seeing the physical signs of burnout…or the stress. It’s a lot harder to reach out from home, but if you need support, you have to ask for it.”
We’re not getting the support we typically do from colleagues at work. People aren’t seeing the physical signs of burnout … or the stress. It’s a lot harder to reach out from home, but if you need support, you have to ask for it. —Molly McAllister, training and staff development coordinator, Connecticut General Assembly
• Establish boundaries
It’s important to maintain control over your workday. We want people to understand our boundaries even if we haven’t communicated them, and we get upset when they don’t, McAllister says. She encourages everyone to consider: “What’s important to you? What are your values? Where are your boundaries? And then politely, respectfully, hold to them.”
Ask colleagues to restrict contact to work hours. And find ways to check in that don’t require a meeting, such as email, which colleagues can access when they have time. But it’s also important in the legislative environment to be flexible, McAllister says. Things will come up that need your attention; there will always be exceptions.
Both McAllister and Stedron recommend building short breaks into your workday. McAllister avoids scheduling meetings back to back. Stedron employs the POMODORO technique: Work 25 minutes, then take a five-minute break.
• Choose a lens; change perspective
“The lens you put on to view the world helps create the world that you’re in,” McAllister says. Rather than waking up thinking, “Ugh, another day of work,” how about, “I get to work outside today!” or “What constituents will I help today?” Reframing your perspective and trying to focus on the positives can help change your lens.
Break projects into manageable tasks. “Just focus on the next step in a process, rather than all the steps,” which can be daunting, Stedron says. And ask for support if needed; with remote work, colleagues won’t necessarily know you feel overwhelmed.
Furman suggests reconditioning yourself to think positively about people or situations that are causing stress. That can be as simple as finding one positive thing to say to yourself each day. And if work includes dealing with a difficult or antagonistic person, try responding to them with, “I can see how you’d say that,” she says. “The minute you agree with them, they disengage. You immediately defuse them.”
Allow yourself time to heal
There are no quick fixes. But there are actions that can help.
• Physical activity
According to Emily Nagoski, any form of physical activity helps release the physical effects of prolonged stress. Go for a run. Take a walk. Stand up and tense every muscle, then literally shake it off.
The Nagoskis recommend 90 seconds of focused breathing to “down-regulate” the nervous system.
• Reinvest in personal relationships
A “natural inclination to connect with other people tells your body that it is physically safe,” Emily Nagoski says. Even a brief interaction with a stranger can provide this benefit. Better yet, chat with a friend.
Nurture relationships at work and at home. These are key energizers, Stedron says, that provide necessary support, along with laughter and physical affection. “Now that we are cut off from them, we are lacking that source of strength,” he says.
Remember that health isn’t just about physical fitness: mental well-being is equally important. Pay attention to the needs of others who may be suffering. “The cure for burnout,” Emily Nagoski says, “must ultimately be all of us caring for each other.”
Holly South is with NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program and serves as the liaison to the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries.
This story was first published in the Summer 2021 edition of State Legislatures magazine.