'I'm putting my entire life on hold': How workers are grappling with Covid burnout

Megan Watkins hasn't been to the doctor in over a year. Every time she's tried to schedule vacation time, something comes up at work, and back to the store she goes.

Watkins, 36, is a retail food service manager in Redmond, Oregon, and she's beyond burned out by work.

"I've put my entire life on hold and devoted everything to keep the business running," Watkins says. She tells CNBC Make It she feels she's given up everything in the last year in order to be reliable to the store, which she recognizes is partly because she offers herself to fill in. In some ways, she's envious of the 20-something staffers she manages, who are more vocal about stepping away from work to prioritize their mental health.

But as the leader of her store and the primary breadwinner of her household, she finds it hard to say no when problems arise at work — and they always do.

Watkins, an older millennial approaching middle-age, also recalls the upheaval of the 2008 financial crisis all too well: "We've worked so hard to get to where we are in our careers, we don't want to lose that. So I feel I can't back away from that responsibility." With that said, "in the last year I've been asking myself: How long I can keep going like this?"

Burnout has officially been defined as a workplace hazard for several years now, and the pandemic has only made it worse. People are more stressed out about their job security, taking on more responsibilities, working longer hours and having trouble finding meaning in anything in the 14th month of the pandemic.

People can't find meaning at work

Burnout isn't just about working too many hours — it comes from a lack of meaning in what you're doing, says Dr. Marra Ackerman, a psychiatrist at NYU Langone Health.

For Jeffrey Hunger, 34, he credits his feelings of burnout to a "loss of excitement and vigor that normally comes from my work as a researcher and educator." In the last year, the Miami University psychology professor has seen many of his students struggle with distanced learning and attending college during a global health crisis.

Teaching in a virtual classroom isn't helping, he says, and his students' burnout impacts his own.

Somewhat ironically, Kristin Moss thinks more shared screen time with her colleagues would stave off her own burnout. The 29-year-old has been working her PR job from home in Toronto for over a year.

She feels disconnected from her colleagues due to endless email threads and would like to have more face-to-face interaction. Without some of that personal engagement, "I feel less motivated and productive over the past six months than I have in the past five years," Moss says.

"I am partially burnt out because I don't have other obligations and my whole life revolves around work," she adds. "Being isolated and lonely is not a good combination for productivity and has had a negative impact on my mental health overall."

Working for a small startup comes with having limited resources. Moss has had to take on the tasks of people let go during Covid-related downsizing, but she says she can't expect too much in terms added benefits to help her manage her burnout.

Moss says she'd be thrilled with a stipend to take an online course, or a weekly meal delivery paid for by the company, as a show of appreciation for the extra work she's put in. She also thinks leaders should stop expecting people to work on nights and weekends in order to meet aggressive deadlines.

"I think being empathetic towards your employees' mental health and implementing work-life balance practices inside the company should be more of a priority for founders or executives than it currently is," she says.

Burned out managers are 'playing the role of a therapist'

As a small business owner in Irvine, California, Winnie Sun, 47, says part of her work stress comes from figuring out how to keep her employees from burning out. Sun is a member of the CNBC Financial Advisor Council, and as the managing partner of Sun Group Wealth Partners, she's figuring out what better work-life balance looks like for a small firm in the notoriously rigid financial industry.

She considers herself an optimist but says managing through a pandemic has been a challenge.

"As someone who leads a team, you shoulder a lot of the feelings of your employees," Sun says. "If one person is struggling because they're stressed out and tired, another is saying 'I don't know if I can take it anymore,' that weighs on you. You try to give your employees balance and protect that time. But if the work keeps coming, you have to take it over. You can't just let that work go to the sidelines."

Sun has increased her workload to keep her company growing, and she finds it hard to say "no" to a meeting or business opportunity when making an appearance is as easy as logging into Zoom. With some days packed with up to five speaking engagements, Sun says she's never been more in demand and wonders how long it will continue — and whether she'll be able to keep up.

"You're not just manager and making sure you're maintaining revenue," Sun adds. "You're playing the role of a therapist. I'm almost like a team mom, making sure everyone's OK and happy. But most managers and business owners, we didn't go through therapist training."

Simply put, "it's overwhelming," Sun says. "It keeps me up at night."

The payoff of supporting your employees

Staffing has been a primary source of work stress for Mike Bradford, a 34-year-old restaurant manager in San Angelo, Texas. He had to cut 75% of his staff early in the pandemic, which was hard to bear for someone who considers himself a coach to his employees.

But in the last year, he says his employer has proven that they care about the workers who remain, which helped him find meaning in his work despite working longer hours and feeling drained. For example, when the economic downturn threatened his financial security, Bradford says he was able to secure a raise for himself and a peer. When one of his employees became injured, they found a way to rearrange their curbside pickup operations to keep his employee, who needed the income, on payroll.

With the economy inching back to life, the restaurant chain rebounded and is looking to expand. Bradford says he feels well taken care of and plans to stay with his employer.

"I've had job offers throughout Covid to make $10,000 to $20,000 more," he says, "but this company has taken such good care of me through some of the hardest times of my life. They've given me reasons to stay, and they've stayed competitive with people who've tried to poach me."

Beyond pay and recognition, Bradford says employers can minimize employee burnout by offering support around child care, whether that's paying a caregiving bonus or partnering with a care facility to provide discounted, direct access.

As a health professional, Dr. Ackerman from New York hopes the pandemic has highlighted the need for greater access to mental health resources, which employers can encourage and provide (and so that bosses like Sun don't have to play that role). She sees it as a matter of public health.

"If people are burned out, they're more likely to develop depression and anxiety," Dr. Ackerman says. "Historically, we've really failed at addressing this, especially in the medical field."

But with a wider acceptance of flexibility, such as through telemedicine and employer-provided counseling, she says, "we didn't have these options pre-Covid, so this could be an exciting development to really move the needle on burnout."

What benefits and policies should employers be offering to combat work burnout? Is it time for a four-day workweek, a standard post-Covid sabbatical or a permanent therapy stipend? Email work reporter Jennifer Liu at [email protected].

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