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(Photo: Getty Images)
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BusinessSeptember 18, 2020

Covid and work stresses hitting you hard? Here’s how not to burn out

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

Covid-19 and its economic impacts have wreaked havoc on New Zealanders’ mental health – especially in the workplace. But amid all the chaos and noise, there are small ways to keep yourself present and calm.

It’s been nearly a year since Covid-19 first emerged into our lives, and the devastating mental health effects of living in a pandemic-stricken world are abundantly clear.

A study released by the University of Auckland in June explained that living in this new era has put many people’s “fight or flight” responses on full alert for an extended period of time, elevating the risk for psychological and physical health damage.

“Few of us will escape completely untouched, either directly or indirectly, by Covid-19 and its flow-on effects,” it read.

“We can reasonably anticipate a significant increase in society’s levels of psychological distress that is well beyond the accepted one-year population prevalence rate for mental morbidity of 20%.”

Since the nationwide lockdown began in March, Lifeline has seen a 25% increase in calls and texts from people in distress. On May 4 alone, Lifeline fielded 493 calls – thought to be the highest volume of enquiries in any single day in the helpline’s almost 55-year history.

Youthline has seen a 50% increase in texts from young people reaching out for support at this time.

In a recent survey by Massey University, almost half of respondents reported having trouble sleeping, experiencing depression, or feeling cut off from their social networks.

Called Aotearoa New Zealand Public Responses to Covid-19, the survey investigated how New Zealanders have been impacted by the global pandemic, including everything from job and income losses, depression, their attitudes towards immigration in a post-Covid New Zealand and their response to government actions.

(Graphic: Massey University)

Even before coronavirus, stress was increasing in New Zealand workplaces. The 2019 Workplace Wellness Report by BusinessNZ and Southern Cross Health Society showed a 23.5% rise in stress across businesses in the last two years.

“General workload” was the most stress inducing issue for all businesses. “Change at work” was the second most common cause of stress for businesses with 50+ staff, while “relationships at work” was the second most common for those with fewer than 50 staff.

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an increase in burnout in New Zealand, according to a survey of 900 workers by recruitment agency Frog Recruitment. The survey showed that more than 64% of workers now feel more burnt out on the job than they did prior to the March lockdown.

Burnout, officially recognised as an occupational condition by the World Health Organisation, is a syndrome occurring from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

Psychologist Christina Maslach, a professor at UC Berkeley, said that burnout is marked by exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy.

Exhaustion can hit you emotionally, physically or cognitively and you may not even feel replenished by rest or sleep.

Cynicism is marked by a sour attitude and a short temper. You may feel irritated and detached from your team. Inefficacy is the feeling that you can never keep up with the demands of the workplace, even though you know you have been able to in the past.

As the Auckland University study stated, “The effects on our collective mental wellbeing are just beginning to be truly appreciated. Not only could Covid-19 have a devastating effect on already vulnerable sectors of society, but also we anticipate a second, and potentially large cohort of newly at-risk people as a result of the economic downturn, both globally and nationally, and expected ongoing rise in unemployment.”

It’s easier to prevent burnout than to fix it. If you are feeling burnt out, there are almost certainly factors beyond your control. But you can still take action.

“A strong consensus exists among mental health professionals that the time is right for a paradigm shift away from mental illness towards mental wellbeing. There needs to be a broader focus on preventive actions,” the report said.

So what can be done to achieve this paradigm shift? While so much of it depends on policy and the steps the government takes to foster and encourage mental wellbeing in the community, there are small ways for people to take action right now.

One of the most constructive practices is a daily mindfulness habit – which at the moment only 1% of New Zealanders have adopted.

Mindfulness is like a firmware upgrade for your brain. You can actually increase your brain’s ability to cope. It’s not that hard to understand; we know how our physiology works, and that we can change the way our bodies perform based on what we practise everyday. You want to run a marathon, you train each day and you get more and more fit. Simple.

Brains are the same. They are malleable, which means they grow and change based on where we focus our attention each day. In the last 40 years, neuroscientists have been looking at the way the brain responds to mindfulness meditation – or the practice of paying attention to the present moment. The results – many of which can be measured with brain scans – are extraordinary: from better sleep to improved immunity and lower levels of stress and depression.

As scientific as mindfulness meditation is, there’s an idea that it is a form of spurious, alternative nonsense, beyond the realm of the mainstream. This is a harmful misconception; mindfulness is an accessible and critical tool that, in light of Covid-19, has become even more important for people to stay calm, happy and healthy. And contrary to the cliché, it doesn’t have to involve sitting cross-legged on a white cushion with your eyes closed.

So how does it work? There are many different exercises, but “zap your inbox” is one of my favourites. It feels good in the short-term, connects you to others, and strengthens your brain’s resilience, giving it the ability to better cope with anxiety and stress in the long-term.

Mindfulness meditation can be done any time, anywhere (Photo: Getty Images)

However, one of the biggest barriers to meditation is the mind’s propensity to discourage you from practising it. “I don’t have time,” it will say. “There’s more important things to do. I’m too stressed because I’m overworked.”

Don’t listen to it. Ignore it and do the meditation. A less stressed, more focused brain will pay back any time you spend with interest. It’s a wise investment and you only need 30 seconds for it to have an effect.

So when you next open your emails for work, practise “zap your inbox”.

The idea is to scroll slowly through your messages and try not to get caught up in the subject of the email or any follow-up you need to do. Instead, just focus on the names and the people behind each of these emails. Even corporate newsletters have a human behind them.

You’ll be scrolling past the names of some people you love, some you don’t and some you barely know. That doesn’t matter. You’re going to connect with them all in the same way, by simply sending them some good vibes.

Each of these people – no matter what you think of them or how well you know them – has a life full of worries, hopes, expectations and challenges. So as you scroll past, just focus your full attention on the person’s name and say in your mind, “Be well.”

Do it slowly so you have time to really mean it. Narrow your eyes. Reign in your focus: “Be well.”

And then scroll down to the next person and do the same. Make it into a game. Don’t get sucked into the content. Just make it your mission to zap each human with kindness.

I’m not suggesting that the person on the other side of the email will necessarily feel the kindness you send them. It’s not about that. This is an exercise that works to change the structure of your brain, in a way makes you cope better and enjoy a better quality of life.

Ironically, thinking of others can be a completely selfish pursuit. Compassion is good for us. Brain imaging shows that this kind of meditation regulates the functioning of the limbic system, which processes emotions and empathy. Compassion meditation has also been shown to decrease depression.

In a world where immense shifts are occurring virtually every week, it’s hard to think such a small exercise will have much of an effect. But I assure you, it is one of the greatest yet simplest gifts you can give your mind. Be well.

Keep going!