The flames within our minds: The commonality and dangers of burnout

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A man stressed due to work. Many students experience burnout, and even more so during a pandemic. Photo by Thirdman from Pexels

In the age of the pandemic, as we sit in a room doing classes on Zoom, a new virus has begun to spread: burnout. Burnout is not an uncommon term; it is the word to describe those who have become overwhelmed by stressors and lose motivation for something they once had a passion for. But the commonality of the phrase is quite alarming, as it is used to describe overworked parents, twenty-somethings trying to pay off student debt and now, to describe college students who feel disconnected from life. 

What is even more distressing, however, is how this commonality is accepted. With Millennials going to a job they hate to pay for an apartment that is too small, many have simply accepted this as a mandatory step for success, or even as the life they will live. Now, in this pandemic, as the effects of burnout begin to creep into the lives of all even more it is integral to recognize that it is not normal, can be avoided and must be taken seriously.  

The signs of burnout can be hard to pinpoint as its effects begin in the mind before leaking into one’s physique. Mental exhaustion can leave people feeling sapped of energy and fatigued. This fatigue can then result in reduced productivity and further negative feelings regarding work or school. Stressors in their environments can lead to headaches and further physical symptoms. Indeed, burnout is not listed as a diagnosable psychological disorder, but its effects are real and distressing.  

Its causes are heavily rooted in workplace habits that are often disguised as normal: time pressure and unmanageable workload. The commonality of the boss handing their assistant a stack of binders or dropping a bombshell by announcing an unreasonable deadline is not just something we see in movies; it is something real that feeds the flames of burnout. The wage gap and lack of inclusivity in some workplace environments also feed the flames of burnout as those who are treated unfairly are 2.3 times more likely to become burned out.  

A cynic may deem it unimportant. Why should we care as long as the individual keeps working? The effects of burnout are not exclusive to an individual. Its effects can spread to the people around them, in their homes and their workplaces. One of the most alarming rates of burnout is in health professionals, where almost 40% of physicians, as shown in a National Physician Burnout, Depression, and Suicide Report, faced the reality of burnout. Unsurprisingly, physicians also work 60-to-80 hour weeks in a high-stress environment.  

But physicians are not the only segment of the workforce whose burnout rates can affect society. The International Labor Organization states that compared to most industrialized nations, U.S. workers clock in the largest number of hours. And though most industrialized nations have been reducing work hours, working hours in the U.S. have been increasing. Contrary to common belief, longer hours have not resulted in increased productivity and instead have only contributed to the effects of burnout. And no matter the career, the effects of burnout can lay heavy and debilitate workers, greatly affecting the productivity of the economy as a whole and therefore, affecting all of us. With the example of physicians, burned out health professionals simply can’t do their jobs as well. Since their work deals with the lives of individuals, the consequences can be frightful. 

Its causes show a clear way we can combat burnout. The burden does indeed lie on those who run workplaces and places of study. For one, as the battle for equity continues, workplaces need to be proactive in creating an environment of inclusivity for all races and genders. Workplaces need to think hard about whether or not long hours truly contribute to their productivity or if they simply place too much stress upon their workers.  

Asking questions that challenge the ‘norms’ of how Americans work and study is what will truly help us unearth the casualties of burnout. We all must take a hard look at how we do so instead of pushing workers into becoming mentally exhausted. This way, we can fill job markets with passionate workers who are productive and not overexerted. And now, in the age of the pandemic where stressors have increased exponentially, it is even more important that we search for solutions to prevent the flames of burnout from spreading any further. 

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