BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Eight months after phrases such as “stay at home,” “flatten the curve” and “social distancing” started to become part of our daily vernacular in the United States, people are experiencing a type of burnout experts call COVID-19 fatigue.
“By this point, we know people are tired — tired of missing family and friends, tired of not having a routine, of not going into the office,” said Jeanne Marrazzo, M.D., director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Division of Infectious Diseases. “Whatever disruptions to a person’s normal life have occurred, there is no denying the mental, physical and emotional toll people are experiencing. What we’ve learned — and what we keep learning — is how to combat burnout in safe ways that minimize the spread of the virus and enable us to feel some sense of normalcy.”
Figuring out how to safely navigate the new normal is more important than ever, explain UAB experts, particularly heading into more vulnerable and trying winter months that present unique challenges.
If you are experiencing general feelings of stress and social isolation and have been for months, you are not alone, says Richard Shelton, M.D., professor of medicine in UAB’s Department of Psychiatry. He notes that those feelings may be compounded by potential economic hardships and exacerbating preexisting depression or anxiety disorders that many already had.
“COVID-19 fatigue and/or burnout implies a person has reached his or her capacity to cope and is experiencing various mental, emotional and physical symptoms as a result of the constant exposure to pandemic stressors, including social distancing, isolation from family/friends, fears of contracting COVID-19, numerous virtual meetings, grief, financial stress, and more,” said Tami Long, Ph.D., director of UAB’s Employee Assistance and Counseling Center.
Symptoms might include:
- Physical and mental fatigue
- Lack of energy
- Feeling constantly overwhelmed, sad or helpless
- The inability to complete daily tasks
- Increased irritability
- Reduced work performance
- Isolating from others
With increased symptoms of fatigue and burnout present, it is critical that one’s adherence to safety protocols does not go by the wayside. Rather than giving up on the progress made, experts stress that finding ways to do the things we want and see the people we wish, within reason, will be the key to a safe winter.
“Pandemic fatigue is a very real threat to the public health measures like masking and social distancing that have kept many of us safe for the last eight months,” said Ellen Eaton, M.D., assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases. “We know that people are ready to switch back to what normal was before, but that’s just not possible right now. However, we can provide guidance and encourage ways to make activities safe and reduce potential COVID harm. There are ways we can engage with our loved ones and recharge our batteries, so to speak, that keep us and those around us healthy.”
Another concerning aspect of COVID-19 fatigue and protocol mindfulness is a person’s desire to see others and either attending or hosting gatherings of all sizes. If mask-wearing and social distancing are not followed even in smaller group settings, the ripple effect of case spread can be impactful.
“Right now, we are seeing across the board that both small and large gatherings are contributing to accelerated community-acquired spread, and well-intentioned meet-ups are further spreading cases in schools, in the workplace and in the community,” shares Suzanne Judd, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health. “It’s paramount that people remain vigilant about who they are seeing and how they are seeing them.”
Judd adds that if you find yourself in a high-risk place – a gathering with more than 10 people where masks are not widely used – you will want to be even more diligent with wearing your mask in even small gatherings in the 14 days following that event to protect your close family members and friends.
In addition to diligent mask wearing and social distancing, you can minimize the risk of socializing by creating a “pod” or “quaranteam,” a small group friends (no more than 10; the fewer the better) who have a consistent set of risk exposures and social tolerances. Members should only socialize with members of your pod and avoid high-risk situations. It is important to know how many face-to-face exposures your pod members have with others — and what kinds — to ensure that you all are safe and COVID-negative when you are gathering. Know how pod members are feeling week to week. If you think a pod member may be exposed or is steering away from the set agreements you all have put in place, it may be time to reevaluate whom you are socializing with and in what contexts.
With shorter times of daylight and winter months on the horizon, intentionality in overcoming fatigue and burnout will be key, Long says. “Daily self-care will help you build up resistance to stress, as one cannot wait until they are feeling exhausted or overwhelmed to start. You must be deliberate about following through with your plan and engage in self-care on a regular basis.”
Long encourages planning for the months ahead with a solid self-care regimen; take the time to write down your plan for accountability. This can include sharing new goals and things you wish to do that can be done safely during COVID-19 while wearing a mask and social distancing.
Additionally, she urges people to understand their stressors by keeping a log, and when you feel triggered, take a step back and figure out the best type of activity or fix for you in that moment.
There is no better time than now to get in a good routine and headspace by incorporating tips from UAB experts below into your lifestyle at home, at work and in the community, she says.
- Research and try out new recipes this season
- Take up self- or guided meditation/quiet time before your day begins or as a break in your day
- Take a moment to assess your mental well-being
- Do a self-check on your feelings with these four C’s
- Listen to music and playlists geared to your mood
- Catch up on your reading and consider starting a virtual book club with friends
- Check out podcasts on topics that may pique your interest
- Schedule meaningful catch-up sessions with friends and family through whatever medium is best and safest
- Access resources to virtual counseling, if needed
- Limit social media activity and news consumption
- Practice gratitude and journal your feelings
- Try at-home workouts through University Recreation, apps or free videos to keep your body moving
- Visit outdoor murals and art collections on the UAB campus and in the city of Birmingham
Working and schooling from home are not ideal for every person but are still the reality for many. How can one combat burnout as they approach the upcoming months of ’round-the-clock productivity while at home?
“The greatest contributor is a blurring of boundaries,” said Ben McManus, Ph.D., assistant director of the Translational Research for Injury Prevention Laboratory at UAB. “Although in any work setting, a blurring of boundaries and duties is a prime contributor to work fatigue and dissatisfaction, the unique work settings during quarantine and remote work lead to a special blurring of boundaries.”
- Set specific and separate spaces for where you work and live; try not to overlap, if possible
- Set time limits for how long you work in a specific place in the house or on a certain task
- Stay healthy through set eating routines, practicing mindfulness activities and taking quick walks outside during the day
- Eat lunch outdoors one day in a greenspace near home or on campus
- Wake up earlier to take advantage of sunlight and enjoy your coffee outside, take a walk before the day begins, or set your daily intentions and to-do lists
In an effort to shake up at-home routines, support businesses and places in our community that offer COVID-19-friendly options and activities.
- Support local businesses committed to COVID-19 safety measures such as masking and social distancing
- Visit hiking/walking trails in Birmingham and surrounding communities, including Red Mountain, Moss Rock Nature Preserve, Rotary Trail and Birmingham Botanical Gardens
- Spend the afternoon fishing at Lake Purdy or Oak Mountain State Park
- Take up a new sport at Highland Park Golf Course or Top Golf
- Take a 20-minute walk in a park like Railroad Park for a mood boost
- Check out The Market at Pepper Place on Saturdays to gather fresh foods and local products
- Go to a UAB Football game and support the Blazers
IN OTHER NEWS: Alabama's GuideSafe app notifies you of COVID-19 exposure