March was supposed to be a month filled with joy for Jenna Collins, a 35-year-old lawyer who had just given birth to a son. Collins, who lives in South Philadelphia, had been looking forward to spending time with not only her husband and son while on maternity leave, but also with extended family members and friends. Instead, COVID-19 happened.

“I gave birth two or three days after lockdown started, and what should have been a lovely, happy time became particularly isolating,” Collins said. “This time when you normally have people bringing over food, holding the baby while you nap, none of that was on the table for us.”

When Pennsylvania extended its stay-at-home orders on April 1, Collins broke down into tears.

“I just remember saying to my husband, ‘I will not make it another 30 days,’” she said. “In that moment, I wanted to give up.”

She was burned out from the demands of new parenthood, but those feelings continued for months. In September, Collins started back at work but she recalled an overwhelming “feeling of dread,” even though she felt a sense of purpose in her work.

Burnout — a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged stress — is increasing across the country as Americans continue to endure the fallout of a particularly polarizing presidential election, civil unrest, and a pandemic that just keeps getting worse. Burnout is a form of feeling exhausted from the work one has to do, said Theresa Nguyen, the chief program officer and vice president of research and innovation at the national nonprofit Mental Health America. While most often associated with a person’s job, burnout, which can lead to symptoms such as insomnia and depression, can affect other areas of life as well.

Jenna Collins is a lawyer and a new mother based in South Philadelphia.
Courtesy of Jenna Collins
Jenna Collins is a lawyer and a new mother based in South Philadelphia.

“It’s feeling like you’re stuck in a rut, but you don’t have the efficacy to make a change,” Nguyen said. “Those two things lead you to feel really cynical about your job, hate your job, feel dread when you wake up, and dislike your co-workers and clients over time. It happens in any job.”

The pandemic has caused elevated levels of stress in most Americans. Nearly eight in 10 adults said the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives, according to an October report from the American Psychological Association. A survey published in July by FlexJobs and Mental Health America also found that 75% of workers had experienced burnout, and 40% of respondents said it was a direct result of the pandemic.

“The biggest issue in 2020 has been about overwhelming, uncontrollable stress,” Nguyen said. “A lot changed for us that we cannot control, and we’ve had to deal with our jobs on top of that change. That’s a slippery slope toward exhaustion.”

Akua Boateng, a therapist based in Center City, pointed out that the body has internal resources to counter transient stressors that occur in everyday life, but a deficit happens when a stressor is prolonged and continuous.

“The pandemic has really caused a long-term withdrawal of resources without a replenishing,” Boateng said. “We usually get replenishment from outlets like social engagements, when we’re able to release tension and have moments of bliss after stress. The pandemic has minimized our ability to access those outlets.”

Nguyen also said the lack of separation between a working space and a home space has likely contributed to burnout. Under normal circumstances, people who opt to work remotely do so because there are certain benefits. For people who are forced into remote work, the experience can be horribly isolating and “definitely an assault on our mental health,” she said.

“We need that separation from work and home to feel safe,” Nguyen said. “It was especially challenging because the transition caught most of us off guard. Nobody around the world had the time to switch into remote work smoothly.”

Another reason why so many people are experiencing burnout is because they’ve lost a sense of what the future holds, said Kathy Wu, a therapist based in Center City. Young people, in particular, are struggling with feeling a loss of control, said Wu, who specializes in adolescent and young-adult mental health.

“People have just been expressing that they’re feeling emotionally unsafe, or that they don’t have a clear pathway to what the future holds for them,” Wu said. “There’s also racial and identity-related stress for those who identify as people of color, as well as economic losses, like losing jobs or a young person not having a sense of whether they can climb up the professional ladder in a way that they anticipated.”

When Wu’s clients express symptoms of burnout, she tries to get them back into doing things that make them feel replenished, such as sleeping well or setting aside time for exercise and nutrition.

“It’s also important not to isolate yourself if you’re experiencing these feelings,” Wu said. “It’s super important when you’re having difficulties emotionally to chat with friends or family, so you can share the grief.”

Boateng said that having “micro-spaces of relief” is important right now. Moments of replenishment can give people enough energy to keep going, she said.

“For example, you may not be able to see all your friends, but you can schedule something with just two people,” Boateng said. “Or you may not have your regular workout and nutrition plan, but you can do something in the next 48 hours to rebalance your system.”

Collins said she continued to struggle with burnout through the summer and early fall as a result of the racial unrest that gripped the country in June and the presidential election. In September, she returned to her job, where she is helping people experiencing housing insecurity as a result of the pandemic. Continuing her therapy sessions has helped, too, Collins said.

“It has certainly been harder to get my workspace started these days than it was before,” Collins said. “I just try to remind myself that I’m really lucky to have my job, and I try to remember why I love my work. And once I get started with my day, I’m always glad I did.”