Burnout – an ‘epidemic’ within a pandemic?

After a year of managing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic – restrictions, lockdown, home schooling – it is somewhat unsurprising that many are feeling overwhelmed and burned out. Juggling stresses of work and family responsibilities and caring for elderly relatives in safe way, coupled with social isolation and uncertainty, has intensified the anxiety resulting from the very real threat of coronavirus infection.

At what point do understandable reactions to these kinds of stressors become burnout?

Research into burnout was originally lead in the 1970’s by psychologist Christina Maslach and, whilst she primarily focused on workplace burnout, her discoveries can be applied to current pandemic-related experiences.

Burnout describes the human response to overwhelming stress, experienced as emotional exhaustion, feelings of detachment and negativity, and feeling a lack of accomplishment. The extended nature of the pandemic has given rise tosustained levels of stress and in some this has resulted in extreme fatigue, leading the World Health Organisation (WHO) to coin the term ‘pandemic fatigue’. People are finding it harder to maintain positivity – 60% of people, in fact, according to a survey by Ipsos Mori – an 8-point increase from November 2020.

While burnout is not in itself a mental disorder, if left unresolved it is a major risk factor for future anxiety and depression.


COVID-19 has uprooted normal family life and routines and has resulted in many parents feeling ovParental Burnouterwhelmed with high levels of stress from balancing household duties, educating children at home and remote working. In normal times parents benefit from the breathing space provided by going to work – but this, amongst other escape mechanisms such as holidays, is hard to come by for many during the pandemic. Parents have had to cope without the normal support networks they relied on pre-COVID-19, with social distancing severely limiting help from family and friends, as well as other childcare services.

Parental burnout can affect anyone, so it is vital that all parents practice good self-care. Those who are at a higher risk of parental burnout are those with pre-existing mental illness, those whose children suffer health problems, and those with financial pressure – a stress that has been significantly on the rise as the pandemic impacts on employment for many.


Pandemic burnout is widespread among keyworkers and health professionals – all of whom are working in the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those working in the health service have been under pressure for some time pre-coronavirus, but the demands put on an already stretched provisionFrontline Burnout have increased exponentially during the pandemic, and staff are at the receiving end of increased pressure.

Frontline staff routinely experience stress factors which the general population do not, but during the pandemic increased mortality rate and exposure to death, the loss of colleagues, the challenges of PPE and infection management, not to mention anxiety around the increased risk of contracting COVID-19 for themselves and potentially passing it on to loved ones at home, provide significant additional stress.

Little wonder then, that a survey undertaken by the British Medical Association (BMA) found that two fifths of doctors in the UK report that their mental health is worse than pre-COVID-19, with 43% of doctors experiencing work-related depression, anxiety, stress, burnout, emotional distress, and other mental health problems.


Even if not on the frontline, it is important that everyone is vigilant for the warning signs of burnout in this challenging environment and should be on the look-out for the following symptoms:

  • Problems with sleep
  • Headaches or stomach problems
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentration
  • Procrastination
  • Increased irritability
  • Use of alcohol or drugs
  • Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness


Maintaining basic mental health hygiene is essential for everyone currently, and especially for those who are feeling the pressure. Having a routine of eating healthily, limiting intake of news, getting sufficient exercise and rest, as well as staying socially connected by whatever means are available, can go a long way in providing the necessary balance in emotionally coping with the current circumstances.


For those who are experiencing three or more of the symptoms above, it is recommended that they seek extra support and professional help to ameliorate symptoms and help manage burnout before it leads to more serious mental illness. An assessment with an experienced mental health professional can help identify symptoms and allow for discussion of options regarding treatment.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is an established treatment for burnout. A randomised controlled trial by Fredrik Santoft of the Karolinska Institute, in Sweden, found that using CBT to treat burnout led to a significant reduction in symptoms, especially sleep difficulties and feelings of incompetence.

CBT helps patients develop the essential long-term, problem-solving skills to manage stress and recover from burnout.

Managing better sleep, pacing for fatigue, and strategies for worry and other anxiety presentations are all part of the CBT toolkit – the aim being to shape up coping resources so that instead of feeling exhausted and desperate, a sense of control and accomplishment is regained.

For more information on how CBT can help symptoms of pandemic burnout, please feel free to get in touch with us directly.

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