Covid Burnout is Real

I was texting a coworker yesterday, whom I haven’t seen in almost five months. He was checking up on how I’ve been, which was really nice because I haven’t been great. Not terrible, but not great either. I told him how I feel like I’ve been doing half the work I did before we transitioned to telecommuting, yet it takes twice the amount of energy. He said he’s heard that from a lot of people.

When the realities of Covid-19 first became clear, and we were sequestered to our homes for several months, it felt different than it does now. There was panic and devastation in seeing footage of overwhelmed hospitals, of hardworking people losing their jobs. But there was also, for lack of a better word, a sense of headiness that came from the world being so drastically altered over the course of a few days. Many people, like me, derive energy from crises — from the great unknown and from having to adapt. When I was a kid, I had a twisted sort of fantasy about facing the apocalypse. Every mundane, first-world problem I was worried about (school exams, upcoming competitions and uncomfortable social situations) would be canceled. Everyone would be stripped down to their truest form and the grit they had to survive. As an adult, I outgrew that fantasy. I saw the horrors of war, visited countries with a lesser quality of life than my own and understood that the dissipation of society was nothing to yearn for, no matter what problems I had with it.

Everything is still canceled. The movie theatres are still closed. Racism is still a problem. Politics are still a big problem. People are still dying every day, from Covid and from many other terrible causes, and I’m tired.

Yet when Covid hit, I was struck by a nervous kind of excitement. For me, it was the alternative to panic. Things had truly changed in a way I’d never witnessed. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to worry that I was falling behind my peers or that there was some other place in the world I should be. Every corner of civilization was closed, the cities were miserable, and I was, for once, grateful to be living in the boonies, where I could observe and prepare from a distance.

Thus far, I’ve been one of the lucky ones. I’ve been able to keep the low-paying job I was once embarrassed by, stay in my low-rent house and remain close to my family, who are equally sheltered on their own little rural islands. For those of us living out here, Covid has been a slow-moving hurricane that always seems to strike somewhere else. We can see it coming, but it’s been half a year of waiting and watching with bated breath. One death in my county so far, where everyone knows everyone, and we fear the next will be our mother or father or sibling. But on a day-to-day basis, the masks and some boarded-up businesses are the sole physical reminders that we are living in a pandemic. It’s enough to keep that low-frequency whir of anxiety going, and it’s making me tired.

You might say that things aren’t really that bad; that it could be much, much worse. And you’re right. But I’m talking about a plague of the mind and soul, and it’s crippling us.

The thing about crises is that they give people the opportunity to be their best. We’ve seen that already, with medical personnel sacrificing their safety and sleep for weeks on end. We’ve seen business owners innovate and adapt to survive, and neighbors pulling together to help and encourage each other. It’s been inspiring. But, on a worldwide scale, our unity is beginning to diminish.

Humans have an immense capacity for endurance, but we have to know what we’re facing. I don’t believe that we’re wired to deal with long-term stress without a clear, immediate cause and a means to adapt. If you’re working in a hospital, dealing with 20 ICU patients, you know exactly what you need to do, and you can find strength in that. But for us millions of Americans sitting on our butts, working (or not working) from home and reading articles about our impending doom each day, this kind of stress is quietly devastating.

It was a growing time, a necessary time. I thought it would change me forever, for the better. But oh, how fickle the mind can be!

In his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Dr. Robert Sapolsky describes an epidemic of chronic stress in the modern world and a plethora of potentially-fatal health problems it can cause. He wrote that before Covid. I would be interested to hear what Dr. Sapolsky has to say about this unprecedented time of added stress on a global scale.

In the beginning, I was emboldened. I chose to approach a terrifying situation with optimism and found comfort in comradery, even if it was through a screen. No matter how bad things got, we were all in this together. I took the time to read and write things I’d been putting off for a long time. I planted potatoes and learned how to make sourdough. I took long walks and meditated. In my work, every news story I wrote was of great significance to the community.

Now, I work to keep food on the table and a roof over my head. Yet I know, if I lost my job, I’d still get by. I write biweekly updates of rising Covid cases, and nobody reads them. No one is interested in a murder trial, either, or the lighthearted features that have nothing to do with Covid. They’re not dire enough. Everything is still canceled. The movie theatres are still closed. Racism is still a problem. Politics are still a big problem. People are still dying every day, from Covid and from many other terrible causes, and I’m tired.

The most damaging change has been that we can’t come together over our differences. We don’t gather, work or drink with the people we lash out at in fear.

It exhausts me to think of going back to work in an office every day, but I desperately need it. I never thought, as a true loner and a homebody, that I would miss waking up early to drive to my job; that I would miss seeing my coworkers and sharing in our daily stuggles. I was ready to move on to something “better” before the pandemic, but now I miss it all. I need a schedule. I need something to do. I need to feel needed.

When I look back at those first few months of sheltering at home, I already feel nostalgic. I learned how cheaply I could live and the things I could make for myself that I once took for granted. I went weeks without buying anything. I got in touch with old friends I’d neglected for a long time. I was pondering my own mortality and discerning what made life worthwhile. It was a growing time, a necessary time. I thought it would change me forever, for the better. But oh, how fickle the mind can be! Especially when fatigued.

These days, I’m shopping more than ever. I know it’s to quell my constant unease and restore a bit of normalcy — a dopamine rush — but I do it anyway. There is haze of hopelessness that has descended on me and my loved ones. “What if it stays like this forever?” is the fear on everyone’s tongues. You might say that things aren’t really that bad, that it could be much, much worse. And you’re right. But I’m talking about a plague of the mind and soul, and it’s crippling us.

We must learn that living life well matters just as much as preserving it and unite under this common goal. We can do more than “get by.” Now is not the time for rest.

This pandemic has not only hurt us in its own right, but it’s also exposed all of the festering wounds that were already there. The most damaging change has been that we can’t come together over our differences. We don’t gather, work or drink with the people we lash out at in fear.

Eventually, we need to stop being afraid. Mortality and danger have always been our companions. We must do what we can to protect ourselves but also recognize the importance that friends, coworkers and strangers hold in our lives. We must learn that living life well matters just as much as preserving it and unite under this common goal. We can do more than “get by.” Now is not the time for rest.


How are you coping with the pandemic slump?

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