Finding Balance Before You Burnout

A year of pandemic life has left many students and professionals spiraling into exhaustion as they struggle to manage the demands of life, school, and work in a remote world of uncertainty.

A little over a year ago, Pitt made the switch from in-person classes to remote learning. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many of us to alter our daily routines as we spent more time at home, more time on the computer, and more time worrying about the unknowns of the virus and, ultimately, our future.

Working from home has caused a massive spike in screen time as we now spend our days shifting from Zoom classes to Zoom meetings in our new “virtual” reality. A long day spent “zooming” often leads to a long night back in front of the computer to complete our tasks and assignments on time. Many students — like myself — are simultaneously holding down a job, attending school, and working on applications for internships and volunteer opportunities, which can quickly become overwhelming.

The end of yet another grueling semester has many in the Pitt community looking forward to a well-deserved break. Pitt and other universities decided to eliminate scheduled breaks during the pandemic to prevent traveling, leaving many feeling overworked and exhausted.

“It feels like we’re being given more work with less breaks,” said a sophomore at Pitt. “Spring break was taken away and labeling a random Tuesday as ‘Self-Care Day’ leaves little time for students to practice self-care when we’re bogged down with assignments in the days leading up to it.”

It seems that many of us are experiencing feelings of burnout as our anxieties climb and relaxation falls to the wayside.

But what exactly is burnout?

“Burnout is a metaphor for energy drain,” says Nisha Nair, a clinical assistant professor at the Katz Graduate School of Business. “Experts who research burnout have found that it typically manifests in three different kinds of states.”

The first state of burnout is emotional exhaustion or energy depletion. This is followed by a second stage where exhaustion leads to withdrawal or disengagement from work. These feelings culminate into a third state, which is marked by increased feelings of doubt in a person’s belief that they can perform well.

In some cases, burnout can manifest as a combination of all three, which could then lead to feelings of depression, severe anxiety, nervous breakdowns, or an overall decline in mental health. Many are suffering from physical symptoms as well with the most frequent grievances involving neck and back pain, headaches or migraines, aching or twitching eyes, and of course, a sore rear-end from sitting in front of the computer all day.

Daily checks for COVID-19 symptoms have become routine but checking for symptoms of burnout occurs more sporadically — if at all. “It can be difficult for a person to realize they are experiencing burnout,” Nair said.

Preparing for battle with burnout has always been challenging — especially when you don’t even know you’ve entered the fight. The COVID-19 pandemic ignited a colossal amount of uncertainty that has intensified feelings of burnout in students and professionals across the globe.

Battling burnout amid a global pandemic is something that none of us have experienced before, yet we feel pressured by an implicit expectation to adapt and overcome any struggles. Symptoms of burnout have been normalized in the pandemic as most of us have come to believe that heightened levels of stress, anxiety, and isolation are common and must be endured for the unforeseeable future.

So, what can we do about it?

“Work life and personal life are all mixed up in a way that feels like they’re all on all the time,” says Chancellor Patrick Gallagher in the University Times. “It’s really important to make sure that we don’t encroach in the limited personal life that’s there — by putting some boundaries around work and making sure that people don’t have an expectation to answer email and be on that electronic tether 24/7. Those are some small things we can do to try to restore some very much needed boundaries in our life when the technology makes it so easy to take them all away.”

Finding balance before you burnout can seem damn-near impossible when you’re swamped with work and watching COVID-19 case counts surge as the country moves into the fourth wave of the pandemic. But balance is a crucial key to restoring mental and physical well-being.

Activities that make you feel engaged, important, and appreciated can help to prevent burnout and raise your self-esteem. Small acts of kindness — such as waving to a stranger, opening a door for someone, or donating your old clothes to charity — can steer your mind away from your problems and reduce stress. Helping someone with a small task can transform any negative feelings about yourself into positive ones.  

Taking breaks throughout the day can refresh your mind and body like hitting the refresh button on your web browser. A short break from the computer allows you to stand up and stretch your legs or your aching back. A bit of movement can loosen up those stiff muscles. Try playing with pets during breaks to bring joy to you and your furry companion. Get up and dance to your favorite upbeat songs for ten minutes or so to boost your mood.

Now that spring is finally here, get outside and go for a short walk, hike, or jog. Any form of exercise can help to clear your mind of worry or give you time to exhale — you may even come up with a bright idea for that project you’ve been working on. A bit of exercise during the day can help you sleep better at night. Getting enough sleep is essential to combatting burnout and experts recommend seven to nine hours of sleep per night to reboot your system.  

Most importantly, remember that you are not in this alone. Reach out to someone if you’re drained or losing hope. Schedule a therapy session if possible or call a family member or friend who is a good listener.

Talkspace aims to provide affordable options for therapy, offering 24/7 access to online therapy with licensed professionals. Completing a brief assessment of your insurance on their website will help determine if you’re eligible to proceed. And don’t forget to explore their student discounts.

For more tips and tricks on how to find balance before — or after — you burnout, check out the University’s Work-Life Balance website.

In case you haven’t heard this in awhile, you’re doing a good job! Smile knowing that people in your life are proud of you and appreciate you more than you know.

Photo of poem kept on my grandmother’s refrigerator, Poem by Spike Milligan