Many feel like burned-out husks as the pandemic drags on

In total, 34 per cent of respondents reported feeling burned out, up from 27 per cent last April.
In total, 34 per cent of respondents reported feeling burned out, up from 27 per cent last April.PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - Like many of us, the writer Susan Orlean is having a hard time concentrating these days.

"Good morning to everyone," she tweeted recently, "but especially to the sentence I just rewrote for the tenth time."

"I feel like I'm in quicksand," she explained by phone from California, where she has been under quasi-house arrest for the last year.

"I'm just so exhausted all the time. I'm doing so much less than I normally do - I'm not travelling, I'm not entertaining, I'm just sitting in front of my computer - but I am accomplishing way less. It's like a whole new math. I have more time and fewer obligations, yet I'm getting so much less done."

Call it a late-pandemic crisis of productivity, of will, of enthusiasm, of purpose.

Call it a bout of existential work-related ennui, provoked partly by the realisation that sitting in the same chair in the same room staring at the same computer for months has left many of us feeling like burned-out husks.

Just recently, I spent half an hour struggling to retrieve a word from the faulty memory system that has replaced my pre-pandemic brain.

Sometimes, when I try to write a simple e-mail, I feel I am just pushing disjointed words around, like peas on a plate, hoping they will coalesce into sentences.

Am I excited about my daily work this month? I would have to say I am not.

"Malaise, burnout, depression and stress - all of those are up considerably," said Mr Todd Katz, executive vice-president and head of group benefits at MetLife.

The insurer's latest employee benefit trends study, conducted in December and January, found that workers felt markedly worse than they did last April.

The study was based in part on interviews with 2,651 employees. In total, 34 per cent of respondents reported feeling burned out, up from 27 per cent last April.

Twenty-two per cent said they were depressed, up from 17 per cent last April, and 37 per cent said they felt stressed, up from 34 per cent.

"People are saying they're less productive, less engaged, that they don't feel as successful," Mr Katz said.

In this very bad year, there are gradations of loss: of homes, of health, of income; the deaths of family members and other loved ones; the absence of security.

In the scheme of things, people who have jobs are lucky. But that does not mean work itself is easy or fun.

"I feel fried," said Ms Erin H, a social media and event coordinator at a university in the Midwestern United States, whose work once inspired and excited her but currently seems like an unpleasant cocktail of boredom, dread and exhaustion.

Things take longer to get done, she said, in part because she doesn't want to do them.

"I'm out of ideas and have zero motivation to even get to a point where I feel inspired," she wrote, responding to a request by The New York Times for people to describe their work-related challenges in the pandemic.

None of that is surprising, said Margaret Wehrenberg, an expert on anxiety and the author of the book Pandemic Anxiety: Fear, Stress, And Loss In Traumatic Times.

A year of uncertainty, of being whipsawed between anxiety and depression, of seeing expert predictions wither away and goalposts shift, has left many people feeling that they are existing in a kind of fog.

"When people are under a long period of chronic, unpredictable stress, they develop behavioural anhedonia," Wehrenberg said, meaning the loss of the ability to take pleasure in their activities.

Nearly 700 people responded to The New York Times' questions, and the picture they painted was of a workforce at its collective wits' end.

As one respondent said, no matter how many lists she makes: "I find myself falling back into deep pyjamaville."

McGill University psychiatry professor Natasha Rajah, who specialises in memory and the brain, said the longevity of the pandemic had contributed to a sense that time was moving differently, as if this past year were a long, hazy, exhausting experience lasting forever and no time at all.

The stress and tedium, she said, have dulled our ability to form meaningful new memories.

"There's definitely a change in how people are reporting memories and cognitive experiences," Prof Rajah said. "They have fewer rich details about their personal memories and more negative content to their memories."

This means, she said, that people may be having a harder time forming working memories and paying attention, with "a reduced ability to hold things in their minds, manipulate thoughts and plan for the future".

Add to that a general loneliness, social isolation, anxiety and depression, she said, and it is not surprising they are having trouble focusing on work.

In its questionnaire, The New York Times asked how people have tried to combat feelings of malaise.

Some are meditating, turning to "alcohol or edibles", walking, making the bed or re-engaging with a spiritual practice.

But, in general, your guess for how to make this strange period easier is as good as anyone's.

"I don't know," one person wrote. "If you find out, tell me."