What Can We Do to Protect Our Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

By David GallagherLast Updated Jul 2, 2020 1:14:24 PM ET
Photo Courtesy: www.vperemen.com/Wikimedia Commons

In a world filled with unbelievable turmoil, restrictions, fears and changes that no one could have imagined just a few short months ago, it’s hard to get past the irony that May is Mental Health Awareness Month. To say that the recognition of mental health this month is timely would be a huge understatement. Billions of people all over the globe are experiencing many different types of mental health struggles as we continue to navigate the uncharted territory known as COVID-19.

Of course, conditions like burnout, which is caused by prolonged and intense stress, were a problem long before COVID-19 came along, but the pandemic has certainly made these problems much worse, adding massive amounts of stress to the lives of everyone, including those who may have previously managed normal stress levels quite well. People are worried about their health, their loved ones, their homes and their jobs, and the future feels uncertain and scary. Let’s take a look at some things that could help.

What Is Causing COVID-19 Burnout?

As the world is quickly discovering, burnout can happen, even when you’re working from home. In fact, because of all the extra stress, uncertainty and trapped feelings related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the chance of experiencing burnout while working from home is even higher than usual. A recent survey conducted by Eagle Hill Consulting found that almost half of U.S. employees who continue to work during the pandemic are experiencing burnout, and about 25% of them pin the blame solely on the virus.

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One major cause of COVID-19 burnout is that many people are working from home for the first time. They aren't used to managing their workloads with such blurred boundaries between work time and personal time. On top of that, they still have to juggle vastly different family responsibilities as well, often working with children causing distractions nearby.

Signs and Symptoms: Exhaustion

One major sign of burnout is emotional and physical exhaustion. This happens because you're feeling so drained by work that it leaves you feeling completely worn out. Your normal energy runs out as a result of job-related stress. That type of stress is particularly high right now, as it seems to actually be coming at us from many angles.

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Living through a pandemic is a stressful experience all by itself. Working from home when you've never done it before, which could include learning a new way of working, is not an easy feat. Exhaustion related to burnout can easily occur under these circumstances.

Signs and Symptoms: Dwindling Enthusiasm

Feeling lethargic or unenthusiastic about work is another clear sign of burnout. Unfortunately, working from home can aggravate this issue. Without a set work schedule — and in the absence of the need to shower in the morning and put on work clothes — it can become a challenge to stay dedicated to what you're doing.

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Plus, without the camaraderie of a shared workspace, feeling pumped to do your job is much harder. This is especially true if it was already a challenge before the pandemic. Unfortunately, the less enthusiastic you are about your work, the less productive you tend to be.

Signs and Symptoms: Negativity Toward Your Job

Outright negativity toward your job means it’s very possible you are burned out, especially if you previously enjoyed your job. Perhaps this is caused by the lack of direction you feel in managing your work responsibilities and time to coordinate with all the home responsibilities that are piling up all at once. It would be easy to feel resentful toward your job in this case.

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This is especially true if your company isn’t doing much to ease the transition. Without assistance and guidance from those above you, work-from-home burnout can become an issue very quickly. These negative feelings tend to pile up too, ultimately leading to additional stress and frustration.

Signs and Symptoms: Decreased Job Performance

Burnout can easily lead to faltering productivity, both in your work and in your personal life. Compounding factors like exhaustion, frustration and lack of clear direction will generally make your productivity decline.

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Plus, without clear communication from leaders at work, which is often the case with companies during this pandemic — it’s all new for them, too! — staying focused can be a real challenge. Even if you do have plenty of time scheduled for work, if you're not getting as much done as you think you could or should, burnout might be the reason.

Signs and Symptoms: Feeling Depressed

Depressed feelings, like extreme sadness or a lack of hope, are understandable during this lockdown. After all, we’ve never seen anything like this before. The situation is unprecedented, lonely, scary and stressful for pretty much everyone. However, if your depression seems to be largely related to work or worse than seems reasonable, it could be a sign that you’re experiencing burnout.

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Working from home can come with a lot of extra pressure due to things like losing the boundaries between work and personal space and having to juggle children and their chaos while working. It can easily become too much and lead a person to feel overly sad in an all-encompassing way.

Signs and Symptoms: Feelings of Restlessness

COVID-19 has caused mental distress among Americans to grow to three times 2018 levels, and restlessness from a sense of isolation is just one of the many results. Being locked up in your house is hard enough, and adding the worry about the dangers of social interaction makes it even harder. All the energy that was once put into socializing, including work-related socializing, doesn’t just disappear.

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Restlessness can also be specifically related to job burnout, serving as a sign that you’re taking on too much. This could be too much work all by itself or too much work on top of all the new burdens related to the pandemic. Either way, these feelings make you feel like you just can't relax.

Signs and Symptoms: Increased Irritability

It wouldn’t take COVID-19 or any other outbreak to make it clear that a life of no escape and no outlet for negative feelings and pressures would ultimately lead to a lot of irritability. Burnout can also cause and further aggravate irritability. Any little thing can set you off, and this becomes quite a problem when stress is coming at you from all angles.

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Many people continue to deal with high productivity expectations from their jobs, despite the chaotic circumstances of the pandemic. Juggling those expectations with virus-related anxiety all while managing all the new pressures of home-all-the-time life would be a lot for anyone to handle.

Signs and Symptoms: Increased Anxiety

Anxiety already happens for many reasons, and the pandemic is throwing fuel on the fire and exponentially increasing anxiety for many people. One big problem is the new way of life that has been forced on us all. For one thing, few people like to be forced to do anything. Factor in a dislike of change and upheaval, and it’s easy to see how working from home for the first time could lead to some anxiety and burnout.

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The idea that you should be just as productive as you were before the pandemic isn’t realistic for most people, but the expectation may still be there. That leaves people worried about job security, which leads to worry about paying bills and taking care of their families.

Signs and Symptoms: Physical Ailments

Burnout isn’t just a mental experience. It can be physical too. Stress often manifests in many ways throughout the body, including headaches, body aches, stomach issues and overall fatigue. The worst part of this is that any physical ailments caused by COVID-19 burnout — not caused by the virus itself — includes work burnout for many people, compounding overall stress levels.

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When a person feels sick, they are naturally less productive and less able to complete quality work. Who can do their best work with a pounding headache? Probably no one.

Signs and Symptoms: Sleeping Too Much or Too Little

Insomnia, troubled sleep and excessive sleeping are all signs that your stress levels are high, which could mean you are burned out from work-related or personal stress. The anxieties we're all experiencing during this strange pandemic lockdown tend to mess with our sleep patterns. Sleeping too much or too little can have disastrous effects on your everyday life.

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Missing out on the right amount of quality sleep means your waking hours are often filled with exhaustion, foggy-headedness and irritability. Sleeping too much tends to cause sluggishness and leave you feeling depressed. Either way, the days are less pleasant and productive without the proper amount of sleep, and this can lead to larger problems down the road.


Solutions to Burnout During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to ease the pain and suffering caused by pandemic-related burnout. Keeping yourself mentally healthy is not only good for your morale, but it could also help keep your immune system in top shape so you don’t get sick. After all, stress does lower the effectiveness of the immune system.

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It’s also nice that many of these burnout solutions can be carried over and used as general stress-reducing tactics when this is all over. It certainly never hurts to be armed with positive mental health tools.


Communicate Your Needs and Circumstances

One potential way to ease burnout symptoms is to simply communicate with your boss. If they don't know your situation and your needs, how can they help accommodate them? It's normal to have time conflicts when you're suddenly working from home with a family right by your side — sometimes literally — and most companies will understand that.

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In practice, this means making sure others who are involved know your circumstances as they come up. You will feel immediately less stressed if you tell your superior the situation, and you work to find a solution together.


Be Honest About Your Ability to Be Productive

It's unrealistic to think you will be as productive working from home during this pandemic as you would be in the office. This needs to be addressed with your superiors. Whether you need to request reduced productivity due to increased family demands or simply due to pandemic-related stress in general, be honest about what you can and cannot get done in terms of work.

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You can reduce feelings of being overwhelmed when you're honest, first with yourself and then with your boss. Recognizing what you can realistically get done in a day or a week helps with managing expectations. As a result, realistic expectations lead to decreased stress.


Create a Separate Workspace

People who aren’t used to working from home generally don't have a home office. Maybe they don't even have a desk. While suddenly turning a room into a home office may not be realistic, getting a desk and creating an enclosed space where you can work — hopefully, in relative silence — can help create healthy boundaries between work life and home life, productivity and relaxation.

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These boundaries are necessary for maintaining your mental well-being. A space that is solely used for productivity also helps you minimize distractions. Telling family members that this area is off-limits to them while you're working gives you a better chance of staying focused while you work.


Work in a Space with Good Natural Lighting

Lighting might seem trivial, but it's not. The lighting in a space can affect alertness and your ability to focus. Natural light increases productivity, so if you can work with great natural lighting, do it. If that isn’t a possibility based on the arrangement of your home, blue-enriched light bulbs can mimic the effects of natural lighting.

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Letting sunlight into your home also lifts your mood. A dark space makes people more tired, and it can also lead to feelings of depression. Whether you're doing job work or housework, choosing the right lighting can help reduce burnout symptoms.


Set Boundaries for Work Hours

It’s still important to "leave work" each day, even if your home is now your workspace. Doing so requires creating a schedule of work hours that you actually follow. Setting this boundary will allow you to unplug from your job and provide some mental space for relaxation.

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In turn, you can recharge to be on top of your game and at your most productive when you return to work the next day. It probably won’t be long before you notice some of your burnout symptoms disappearing as you maintain a clear work schedule for yourself.


Create a List of Tasks

Suddenly working from home when you normally take care of business in a communal workspace can be challenging, especially in terms of staying focused. One way to help stay productive and sane while working from home is to make to-do lists of your work tasks. (You can even knock out some housework lists while you’re at it.)

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Lists help you reduce stress and burnout, because you no longer have to stop and think about what you have to do. You can easily follow your preset list without putting much thought into it. Also, checking tasks off a list provides a sense of satisfaction as you track the progress you're making each day.


Name Your Ailments

If you recognize your issues, they will be easier to manage, and that can provide some relief from burnout symptoms. You can do this by naming your emotions when you experience them. Labeling them helps move the problem from something vague to something very specific that you can address.

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If you're feeling restless, acknowledge the restlessness so you can figure out how to get rid of it. If you're feeling exhausted, call it what is, and the solution will be easier to find. If you don’t recognize the problem, then it obviously becomes much more difficult to figure out how to solve it.


Ask for Help When You Need It

Pandemic or not, when you're struggling with anything, including burnout, asking for help can be one of the quickest ways to relieve some of your suffering. The trick is to ask the right people based on your needs. If you need help with chores around the house and a family member is capable of helping, ask them directly to assist you.

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If you need help with something job-related, talk to your boss or co-workers. Most people are happy to help when they know someone is struggling. It may not be easy to ask for help, but it’s typically easier than dealing with the negative consequences of going it alone.



Meditation works to free your mind of the constant swirling thoughts that most people are having during this very strange and stressful time. It has great potential to help with burnout, so you can get back to being your better self.

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For basic meditation, all you have to do is sit down, close your eyes, breathe in and out deeply, and only think about your breathing and nothing else. You can do this for as long as you want, keeping in mind that the best results come from meditating for at least a couple of minutes.


Commit to Some Form of Exercise

Moving your body is good for both your body and your mind, and it can really help you get rid of burnout. Cardio exercise that gets your heart pumping prompts your brain to release mood-lifting endorphins. Moderate- to fast-paced cardio also works as a stress reliever, as it forces you to think only about your body and shut off your mind.

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Yoga and other forms of light exercise, such as light stretching, can have positive results for relieving burnout as well. Even if you can only commit to 15 minutes a day, that will start the journey to getting your mind back to feeling healthy again.


Prioritize Rest

If you're tired, it means your body and mind need to rest, and you better not ignore it. When you’re well rested, you are more productive, meaning you can get more work done in less time. When you think about it that way, getting the appropriate amount of sleep actually ends up giving you more time, not less.

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Another thing to consider is that burnout stems from stress, and stress is magnified when you’re tired. Allowing yourself to sleep when your body demands sleep will leave you in a better position to deal with your emotions when you wake up.


Be Flexible

Most of the time, there are many ways to do the same thing and many solutions to the same problem. Remaining flexible makes it easier to accept that certain things are out of your control. As long as you recognize that you can figure out how to deal with it, you can avoid burnout.

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If you're too set in your ways, you set yourself up for anxiety when you aren't able to accomplish things as planned. Especially during this pandemic, it's hard to know what is coming. Stay flexible, and you will save yourself the anxiety of worrying about how you will handle deviations in your plans.


Talk About Your Feelings with Someone

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of many people across the globe. Whether you are scared of catching the virus, lonely from the isolation or fearful about the long-term repercussions of a faltering economy, it’s all a lot to deal with emotionally right now.

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This is the time to lean on family, friends and mental health professionals for emotional support. Talk to them about your feelings. Of course, you may not be able to see them face-to-face during the lockdown, but this digital age comes fully equipped with a plethora of electronic options for reaching out to each other for the support we need.


Step Outside Every So Often

Fresh air is good for you. If you’re feeling burned out, it might be because you're too caught up in the moment, and it’s overwhelming you. Take a break from the restrictions of the indoors, whether that means taking a walk around the block or simply stepping outside for a few moments.

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A break can help you manage stress, anxiety and other negative feelings that might be weighing on you. It will give you the space to realize the world is bigger than this moment. Most people are surprised by how much this small action can do for their mental health.


Video Chats Are Better Than Phone Calls

It's easier and more comfortable for people to communicate with those we care about face-to-face. However, because of the necessary social distancing measures the world is following right now, that's just not possible. The second-best thing is video chatting. It provides a digital face-to-face where visual communication cues are still accessible.

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Also, seeing someone while talking helps us feel more connected to them, which is why opting for a video chat over a phone call can help you manage burnout symptoms that may be intensified by loneliness. This is true not only for personal communication but for work-related communication as well.


Do Something That Is Emotionally Uplifting

Burnout often leaves people feeling depressed and unmotivated. To counter these feelings, you could start a hobby that leaves you feeling the opposite: cheerful and energized. Now that most people are stuck at home the majority of the time, it's important to have not only relaxing but uplifting activities in your rotation of things to do.

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Some examples of the kinds of hobbies you can add to your life are gardening (even indoor gardening), reading, learning a new skill, journaling and kicking your cooking skills up a few notches.


Keep Track of What Stresses You Out the Most

Knowing what stresses you out the most will make it easier to manage those situations or, even better, avoid them altogether. Recognizing them as big-time stressors means you'll be able to take proactive steps as they're happening to get out of that situation before it blows up.

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For example, if you know that your partner needs to be reminded to do the laundry so you don’t have to add it to your own endless list of things to do, take the time to provide that reminder. That way, you can avoid the conflict and all the related stress.


Above All Else — Go Easy on Yourself

The coronavirus pandemic has created unprecedented levels of stress and pressure on many people worldwide. It's normal for your productivity to decrease. It's normal for you to feel anxiety and worry about the future. Don't punish yourself for these responses, as it will only make your mental health problems worse.

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Don't push yourself too hard or even as hard as you did before all this COVID-19 stuff began. A pandemic is a lot to handle, and your biggest priority should be taking care of yourself, not being hard on yourself. Productivity isn’t the only measure of success. Happiness is critical too.