Burnout is real, particularly in this very unusual year


As a challenging year comes to a close, University leaders are encouraging Pitt employees to take their mental health seriously over the winter break — asking them to take time to rest and unplug to help avoid burnout.

And the Pitt community really could use a break.

Staff Council President Andy Stephany said during the Nov. 12 Senate Council meeting that a survey of nearly 3,000 Pitt employees by David Lebel, an associate professor in the Katz Graduate School of Business, found more than 50 percent reported high levels of work stress; nearly half of the participants reported having difficulty maintaining work and home boundaries, and nearly a third reported high levels of burnout. 

During the November Senate Council meeting, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said the pandemic and the increased need for remote work has blurred the barriers between professional and personal lives for many.

“Work life and personal life are all mixed up in a way that feels like they’re all on all the time,” Gallagher said. “It’s really important … to make sure that we don’t encroach in the limited personal life that’s there — by putting some boundaries around work and making sure that people don’t have an expectation answer email and be on that electronic tether 24/7. Those are some small things we can do to try to restore some very much needed boundaries in our life when the technology makes it so easy to take them all away.” 

Mark Burdsall, assistant vice chancellor for consulting services at the Office of Human Resources, said the University understands the pressures many employees are coping with.

“The University empathizes with its employees, especially during the pandemic, as we understand the possible stressful and uncertain impact that this new environment may have,” Burdsall said in an email. “Workload has increased for many, and the University understands the importance for staff to have time away from work. Time away is one of the easiest ways to prevent work stress or burnout.”

How burnout works 

In popular culture, burnout is often conflated with depression and anxiety. But burnout is a metaphor for energy drain, said Nisha Nair, a clinical assistant professor at the Katz Graduate School of Business.

Experts who research burnout have found that it typically manifests in three different kinds of states, Nair said.

The first state of burnout is the experience of emotional exhaustion or depletion of energy overall. This is followed by feelings of depersonalization or a withdrawal or disengagement from a person’s work. This culminates in diminished feelings of personal achievement and a decline in a person’s belief that they can perform their job well.

Linda Tashbook, a foreign international comparative law librarian and chair of the Senate’s Mental Health Task Force, described burnout as “a type of misery that combines boredom with feeling trapped, not having something meaningful to focus on, and an awareness of not being appreciated.”

Nair said when a person is experiencing burnout, it can be a combination of all of these experiences, which can exacerbate feelings of stress. This could then lead to feelings of depression, anxiety or an overall decline in mental health. It also can be difficult for a person to realize they are experiencing burnout, Nair said.

“Oftentimes burnout is the kind of the early stages of what could then progress to nervous breakdowns and just kind of giving up,” Nair said. “It’s that first cry of help oftentimes that people might surface or express in terms of not being able to cope. ‘(There’s) too much to do, or too many demands to attend to and feeling the sense of I’m drained out, I don’t have it in me to be able to deliver.’ ”

There is another way to look at burnout, Nair said, as the perception of an imbalance between work demands and constraints in the person’s work.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on these elements, where people with various jobs are finding themselves struggling to manage the constantly evolving demands and conditions of their jobs while dealing with the strain of facing work conditions that they didn’t sign up for.

Examples of this include healthcare workers and service-oriented workers dealing with increased health risks and others working from home full time while caring for children attending school online.

What can be done

When someone is struggling with burnout, they may find it difficult to express these feelings to friends, family or work supervisors.  

If a person chooses to express concerns to a supervisor, the supervisor could make accommodations within the context of the job, such as giving the employee more time to finish the work or being flexible as they try to manage demands outside of work that may be overwhelming them, Nair said.

Additionally, Nair said finding ways to help add more variety and creativity to the job could help.

“The more that the work itself can be made meaningful, can be made more enjoyable for the individual, the less you’re likely to succumb to the pressures of exhaustion and depersonalization,” Nair said.

Burdsall said the Office of Human Resources tells supervisors to be flexible with workload distribution and to encourage staff to use their vacation days.

“To fully support this, the University temporarily modified policies to allow employees the greatest flexibility in managing their remote or onsite work, possible quarantine, and work stress or burnout,” Burdsall said. “A few examples include the addition of 10 sick days, the removal of the vacation accrual cap, and the addition of three days to the University’s winter recess.”

Burdsall said supervisors also can attend or review recorded Supervisor Support Chats for further tips.

Pitt employees who may be struggling with burnout may not want to risk saying something regrettable or bringing attention to their negative feelings, Tashbook said. If this is the case, she recommends that ahead of their annual review, they gather appreciative notes, samples of good work, weekly lists of accomplishments or other positive job experiences.

“Then, at review time, they can demonstrate that they are worthy of appreciation, either a task reduction or else more challenging and stimulating work, more independence, and even a raise or promotion.”

If an employee believes they are experiencing burnout, Tashbook said, they should first begin by focusing on separating from what they believe is the root of the feelings of burnout.

“Immediately put yourself in settings where you will do more interesting things, be a part of something that feels important, and feel appreciated,” Tashbook said. “Even during your workday, you can engage in these kinds of experiences: Attend meetings of a University Senate committee or the Staff Council or Faculty Assembly, join the Pitt Commons where you can either find or serve as a mentor, join Pitt Cares for convenient volunteer activities, connect with the Center for Creativity. All of these are active and accessible online now.”

Pitt employees also have health care options through the Life Solutions, the University’s employee assistance program, which can be a good first step for employees and supervisors to figure out how to best address burnout, Burdsall said. 

Some of Life Solutions offerings, Tashbook said, include fact sheets and webinars about burnout and free, in-person and online counseling.

Additionally, employees and their families with UPMC Health Plan coverage can explore virtual discussions about work stress, remote work and other issues, Burdsall said. 

Tashbook said staff can visit the University’s Work-Life Balance website, which provides useful resources for people who may be experiencing burnout.

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905. 


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