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Globe Magazine

Welcome to Burnout Nation, where stress makes everything not OK

Even before COVID-19, Americans worked too much, slept too little, and stressed constantly. Something has to change before it’s too late.

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk for The Boston Globe

In many ways, I have long operated on the edge of burnout, pushing the limit, coming really close, but never quite going all the way over the cliff. I am a people pleaser by nature, with a work ethic driven half by upbringing — my father’s catchphrase for whenever I didn’t want to do something was “It will make you a better person” — and half by having chosen a profession that pays by the word. So I say yes — a lot. It’s usually worth it: I almost always get something out of every experience or story I agree to, including money and more work. And like many people, I’ve convinced myself I’m happier, and even more productive, when I’m busy, although it’s possible I’m too distracted to notice my feelings either way.

Back in mid-March, in the early days of social distancing, my frenetic schedule was stripped down. I lost some jobs that required travel; personal trips I’d planned to take were canceled. No more teaching yoga twice a week, volunteering at the cat shelter, driving an hour to get my hair cut, or seeing friends for drinks. I was disappointed, but also a little relieved. A break might not be so bad.

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Except, what break? Living during the pandemic has been exhausting: getting food, washing my hands, cleaning the house, washing my hands, having the same conversations over and over again with the one other adult I see in person, washing my hands. I’m up at 5 a.m. to teach twice as many yoga classes online as I did “in real life” and getting just as much writing work as I did before, all of which I take, because I like to work and because who knows what my opportunities will be like six months from now? Many of the industries I have spent years writing about — design, travel, fashion — will not look the same after COVID-19, while journalism’s ongoing crisis has deepened. Meanwhile, the already-thin boundaries I maintained between work and home have all but evaporated. My husband moved his office to our dining room, and I can see my “desk” (née coffee table) from my bed, where I am writing this piece on a Sunday morning, because it is due tomorrow. I conduct interviews by Zoom, see my therapist in Google Hangouts, and teach yoga on Facebook, all from the guest room. Sometimes I work out twice a day, to compensate for all the not leaving the guest room I’m doing. I cook more, read more news, call my parents more often, and stay up later to spend time with my husband, since I’m trying to see him less when I’m supposed to be working. I marvel at my parent-friends, who are managing distance learning for multiple children on top of it, all while also taking their lives as evidence that I could be doing more, if I had to.

If my story sounds familiar, it’s because I’m hardly unique. We are a nation obsessed with overdoing, and overworking, and we were already fast approaching collective burnout — the emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by chronic and unmanaged stress that’s become so prevalent that the World Health Organization has officially classified it as an occupational phenomenon — even before we piled “survive a global health crisis” on top of our list of things to do. We are working longer hours, with fewer days off and less paid leave, than people in every other country — and more than half of us don’t even use all the vacation time we do get. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the average productivity per American worker has increased nearly 400 percent since 1950. A third of Americans now work more than 40 hours a week; nearly 10 million of us work more than 60. And a 2018 Gallup Poll of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that 23 percent reported feeling burned out at work “very often” or “always,” while an additional 44 percent reported feeling burned out at least sometimes.

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And these numbers were all before COVID-19. A recent report found that 25 percent of US employees are already feeling burnout owing specifically to conditions created by the virus. Eight in 10 of us now work remotely, all but obliterating work-life balance, and, compared with essential workers putting their lives at real risk every day, we’re the lucky ones. Reports of employee network use, from VPN companies NordVPN and Surfshark, show that we’re clocking three hours more per day on the job than before lockdown, plus logging on later at night than we used to, with spikes in usage from midnight to 3 a.m. “There’s no start and stop anymore,” says George Shuster, a bankruptcy attorney in Rhode Island, who began working from his family’s living room in March. “I work pretty hard anyway, but before, at certain points at night, things would stop, and on weekends, things would definitely slow. Now, that’s turned into this ongoing workday that’s happening all the time.”

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Illustration by Hanna Barczyk for The Boston Globe

If for a hot second some of us were fooled into thinking social distancing would mean “slowing down,” reality has turned out to be quite the opposite. “I’m kind of liking having nowhere to be,” a friend texted me a few days into self-quarantine. “Cleaning, purging, organizing, puzzles and Uno, and walks with the kids and the dogs — life is pretty good!” By two weeks later, her tune, and her tone, had changed for the worse.

“While burnout is most often talked about related to work, one can burn out on other responsibilities, including child care and homeschooling,” says psychiatrist Shekhar Saxena, a professor in the department of global health and population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Interacting with children, for example, for most of us has been a pleasure. When it, or anything else, becomes too much, you derive less pleasure, and there is less self-efficacy and satisfaction. You’re not sure what results you’re getting, and you have a constant feeling that you should be doing more.”

For many, says Boston psychologist Janna Koretz, working from home while managing COVID-related restrictions and obligations has been a lesson in managing chaos. Many of her patients are now being expected to do two things at once, like work and teach. “We’re all trying to do a good job at work, regardless of what’s going on in the rest of the world,” she says. “But there’s a heavy mental load to simply existing right now.” Outside structures that were critical to balancing and de-stressing, such as spin class or coffee with friends, are gone, replaced by an endless loop of just getting through today, which feels a lot like yesterday and will probably feel a lot like tomorrow, too. “As people have moved to working from home while simultaneously managing their households, they’re having to keep track of twice as many things without any assistance of daily structure,” says Koretz. “School time is work time is walk-the-dog time is eating time. It takes an enormous amount of effort to install order, and that is exhausting.”

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Jennifer Johnson, a single mom to a 10-year-old in Newburyport, was let go from her marketing job in early March. At the beginning, she says, she was ready to take on all of it: the masking up, the hunkering down. “I was out of work, I was like, ‘I got time to homeschool,’” she says. “After a few days, I said to her teacher, ‘God bless you, is she like this every day?’” Now, Johnson is “go go go,” rearranging the house in preparation for her mom moving in, trying to find a new job, helping her daughter cope with not being able to play with the neighborhood kids, and eating and drinking her feelings. “I am completely — and from all different sides — burned out,” she says. “Every once in a while I’ll have a day where my body’s just like, nope.”

Those of us who still have jobs, meanwhile, are doing our best to hang onto them — at a cost. Job insecurity is one of the biggest drivers of burnout, says Tsedal Neeley, a professor in the organizational behavior unit at Harvard Business School. And we’ve got plenty of that right now: By early May, the US unemployment rate was close to 15 percent — the worst since the Depression era — and Massachusetts is on par with that, with some predictions saying we could come closer to 25 percent. A recent Gallup Poll found that an additional 25 percent of workers believe they’ll lose their jobs within the next 12 months. “We’re seeing entire industries shutting down, companies furloughing near-entire workforces,” Neeley says. “As a result, messages of financial austerity are being conveyed inside the organizations that are still operating. So people are feeling insecure. Because of that, they’re working harder, and trying to demonstrate their value.”

The sort of “flex schedules” meant to accommodate working parents really just translate into working long into the evening after your kids — and your co-workers — have gone to bed. The technologies we’re using to communicate, meanwhile, are compounding the overwhelm. “What used to be supplemental digital tools are now becoming the only means by which to engage colleagues,” Neeley says. “But some people think they need to Zoom all day long, when instead a few e-mails or a text might be sufficient. Being on Zoom all day is exhausting.” And yet, consider the thousands of essential workers for whom “Zoom fatigue” might sound like a walk in the park compared with the challenges they’re facing trying to balance taking care of their families, and themselves, with the often-overwhelming anxiety that accompanies being in danger. “Front-line workers, whether in health care or another sector, are getting the brunt of it,” says Saxena. “They are at the maximum risk of burnout.”

Ricardo Rodriguez, a busy Boston-based real estate agent, is used to working long hours — typically 7 in the morning until 10 at night. But he committed long ago to finding balance by making sure he was satisfied with the quality, if not the quantity, of his time off. “If I had one afternoon a week free, it was going to be a nice afternoon, and I was going to do things and see people that were meaningful,” he says. But even his packed, pre-COVID calendar was nothing compared with what his days look like now, hustling to keep existing real estate deals in place and attracting new clients, too, with few pauses for reflection or anything else. “Those 15 minutes that you would take to walk around to get where you needed to go, all that is completely gone,” Rodriguez says. “And so now it’s just appointment after appointment after appointment. Everything happens in a row.”

The pandemic has also forced him to reinvent his business approach — after all, he says, how we live and work will never be the same — putting him almost back at square one, some 16 years in. “We can’t come out of this offering the same value proposition that we did just three months ago,” he says. “Our relationship to home, and to people, is not going to be the same after this. It can’t be. And so neither is my business.”

Those who find themselves looking for jobs, meanwhile, are experiencing a different sort of burnout, one compounded by the stress and worry of not having any income and few job prospects to be had. “Spending hours and hours on the computer, on Twitter, doing all sorts of networking and consuming a whole lot of information . . . boy, is that a source of burnout,” Neeley says. “The message for a lot of people getting laid off right now is that, it’s not your fault. Companies might be good about saying that. But people don’t always believe it.” And so they look harder, because their self-esteem depends on it.

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There will be real consequences if we try to keep up this pace. According to the 2018 Gallup study, burned-out employees are 23 percent more likely to visit the emergency room. “The longer employees go without receiving the sort of nuanced verbal and nonverbal feedback they get in person, the more isolated and disconnected they feel,” Saxena says. “The prevailing emotions become fear and guilt — oh, maybe I should be working more, doing more — which drive them toward trying to perform more. Out of the three buckets of things that you do — work, care for others, care for yourself — the self-care is decreasing.”

The consequences are also pretty damning for companies. Burned out employees typically have 13 percent lower confidence in their performance and are half as likely to discuss how to approach performance goals with their manager — one reason Google recently asked employees to take a day off, acknowledging that working from home may be here to stay.

And that’s the worst part: There is no real end in sight — to working from home for those who can, or to COVID-19 for all of us. No one quite knows what happens next. “This is not my first challenge in life,” says Johnson. “But usually you know when a dark period will be over, or have some certainty things are going to get better. With this, we don’t know. There’s no expectation for us to reach, no set end goal. It’s just masking and gloving up and trying not to think too hard about it in the meantime.”

What we do know, says Neeley, is that any “new normal” will likely integrate remote work. As such, she says, “We’re going to have to figure out how to adapt, and not just survive but thrive. It will be in our best interests. It will not be optional.”

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Alyssa Giacobbe is a frequent contributor to Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.