While workplace stress is nothing new, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated it for all types of workers. From the added stress of working from home (and now for some, anxiety around returning to the office again) to the millions of essential workers who had to put their own health at risk during the pandemic — everyone has been impacted in some way and to varying degrees. If there is one silver lining though, it’s that these challenges have brought mental health to the forefront of the national conversation and shone a light on existing problems.
A recent Household Pulse Survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 37% of people surveyed reported feeling anxious or depressed. (That number was just 11% in 2019.) On top of that, in their 2021 report: Mind the Workplace, Mental Health America (MHA) found that nearly 9 out of 10 employees report workplace stress that impacts their mental health.
Burnout had become a hot topic of conversation long before the events of 2020, and has become even more prevalent over the last year. In their survey, MHA found that nearly 83% of respondents felt emotionally drained from their work, and nearly 1 in 4 employees experienced severe signs of burnout, including reduced professional efficacy and cynicism towards coworkers and their jobs.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has even added burnout to its International Classification of Diseases. According to the WHO, burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, and is characterized by three dimensions:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Reduced professional efficacy
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
Aside from factors related specifically to the pandemic, other common factors that contribute to burnout include overwhelming workload, long working hours, staff shortages, an aggressive environment, and lack of support from management. If left unaddressed, burnout can cause lower productivity and quality of work, job dissatisfaction, low organizational commitment, absenteeism, and ultimately, turnover.
While any employee in any company can experience burnout, there are some jobs that are at higher risk. Even pre-pandemic, employees in the medical field were at higher risk for mental health challenges. A 2019 study by Medscape found that 44% of physicians reported feeling burned out. Many physicians pointed to long hours and increased administrative tasks as a major source of burnout. One family physician even said, “All that paperwork sucks all of the enjoyment out of being a doctor.”
People in other types of high-pressure jobs, like sales, are also at risk of burnout and other mental health challenges. According to Sales Health Alliance, dealing with constant worries about hitting sales goals and dealing with constant rejection can make the sales environment a very difficult place to maintain mental well-being. Their latest survey of sales professionals showed that 43% struggle with their mental health.
Managing Zoom fatigue
For people working from home (and even many who don’t) video conferencing has become a huge part of our lives. While the ability to connect with colleagues, friends, and family members from the safety of our own homes has been invaluable in many ways, constant use of tools like Zoom has also caused very real mental health challenges for many.
Stanford communications professor Jeremy Bailenson recently shared with CNN Business the four causes of Zoom fatigue:
- ‘Fight or flight’ survival. A video call “smothers everyone with gaze,” so though your just staring at a camera, it simulates a confrontation and triggers your fight-or-flight instincts.
- Non-verbal internet cues. We’re not used to socializing in a virtual environment and our brains don’t know how to pick up non-verbal cues in the same way.
- Constant mirror and self-evaluation. The self-evaluation that happens when seeing yourself on video can make you stressed, and the effects are even worse for women. Bailenson mentions a study that shows long periods of self-focusing can “prime women to experience depression.”
- Stuck in the box. Zoom fatigue traps us in a box, which can limit our mental ability and cause our minds to act differently than when we’re able to move around.
Video conferencing may become less necessary as the world opens up, but it’s not likely to go away completely. But according to Bailenson, we’re not sentenced to Zoom fatigue and there are some things we can do to combat it.
“Collapse that self-image box so it’s out of view… it will be like a weight taken off your shoulders. Use an external webcam or opt for more phone call meetings — so you can get up and think out of that Zoom box,” he says.
Create boundaries and take mental breaks
Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis, told NPR there are ways to spot the signs of burnout and regain some control. One of these ways is to tune into how you’re feeling at work each day.
“It can even be helpful to sort of note your mood throughout the day,” says Gold. “Like, ‘Every time I have a meeting with so-and-so, I feel horrible, and then every time I’m with this person or doing this thing, that’s where I find the most meaning.'”
Ron Friedman, author of the book, The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, tells Harvard Business Review that burnout often stems from a lack of understanding about what it takes to achieve peak workplace performance. “We tend to assume that it requires trying harder or outworking others,” he says, “which may get you short-term results but is physiologically unsustainable.”
Friedman recommends taking regular breaks to restock your mental energy. “Take a walk or go for a run. Have lunch away from your desk. Stepping away from your computer gets you out of the weeds and prompts you to reexamine the big picture.”
Speak up and ask for help
As more people speak up and speak out about mental health, more employers are starting to pay attention. A 2020 Business Group on Health survey found that nearly half of large employers now train their managers to recognize mental health issues and an additional 18% plan to start in 2021. Plus, 54% of employers will offer free or low-cost virtual mental health visits this year.
If you’re experiencing the symptoms of burnout or a more serious mental health condition, you are not alone and help is out there. Many employers offer an employee assistance program (EAP), that provides you with free resources, many of which include access to virtual counseling or therapy. You can also talk to your primary care doctor or ask them for a referral to a mental health professional. Or, you can search for qualified therapists in your area on the Psychology Today website.
Organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) are also available for help and guidance. (You can also call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.)
To learn more about strategies for managing your mental health at work, you can also download Mental Health America’s Workplace Mental Health Employee Support Guide: https://mhanational.org/employeesupportguide.
*Disclaimer: This article is for general informational purposes only and not intended to provide any clinical advice. It is only intended to provide general education and research around mental health in the workplace and provide links to available resources.