Humans are creatures of habit. We function best and feel most comfortable within the pre-established systems we’ve constructed and refined over the years.

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The limitations now imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic have led some of us to experience a new environment, one that may bear little resemblance to the past.

In response, we’ve been forced to hastily form new habits and find a new system of living and working. This has proven insufficient to withstand daily life, though.

Our new habits may have provided us with practical solutions, but they’re taking a toll on our mental health.

In fact, because we lose that stable structure — so vital to our well-being — many of us are now experiencing symptoms of burnout.

In general, burnout refers to the aftermath of a mental or physical collapse.

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes it “as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Burnout symptoms are classified within three dimensions:

  • feelings of exhaustion, irritability, and being overwhelmed
  • alienation, or feelings of cynicism related to one’s job
  • reduced productivity and an inability to meet the demands of daily work and life

This definition of burnout rings all the more true during a pandemic that has thrown the nature of our workplace in complete disarray.

Workplace surveys describe a dramatic increase in rates of burnout during the pandemic.

This year has taken an especially noticeable toll on healthcare professionals. Certain specialties, for example, have reported an increase in burnout rates of more than 10% compared to the previous year.

Primary factors for this increase include prolonged shifts, limited resources, and a fight against a virus that seems to have no end.

Pandemic-induced chronic stress has indeed exacerbated mental health conditions.

In June 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported an uptick in diagnoses of anxiety and depressive disorders — three to four times higher in 2020 than in 2019.

This seemingly points to the pandemic as the main culprit.

Our pre-established system — the one that helps us function well in life —fundamentally consists of two parts:

  • boundaries
  • strategically placed rewards

These two aspects complement each other to help us contain, manage, and disengage from stress. To tackle pandemic burnout, we must first understand the nature of these boundaries and rewards and how exactly this pandemic has affected them.

Boundaries help us feel protected and socially connected, and they provide us with a sense of what we can or should do.

Take physical boundaries, for example.

Not everyone enjoys the same degree of touch and communication. Nonetheless, we might all find comfort in sharing pieces of ourselves with others, whether that be a hug, a wave, or a casual conversation.

Unknowingly, these moments become crucial emotional rewards that we have used to combat the demanding and lonely nature of work.

Yet, to stay safe from COVID-19, we’ve had to establish more stringent physical boundaries. This limited in-person interaction has left some of us more susceptible to stress.

Technology may help us overcome these new social obstacles, but we must be wary of its challenges.

When the line between office and home is blurred, it becomes more difficult for our minds to distinguish between moments of work and rest.

Working in our bedrooms, following up on emails in the dining room, and replying to texts during a family movie has granted our coworkers 24/7 access to our lives.

Now embroiled in an endless realm of work, we’ve become more productive at the expense of our emotional sanctuary and mental sanity.

No “good” boundaries to protect us from chronic workplace stress, more “bad” boundaries that deprive us of genuine social interaction — the pandemic has inevitably led to increased feelings of isolation, anxiety, depression, and burnout.

Because of public health measures that limit our social interactions, our modified boundaries pose other limitations on emotional rewards.

For many months, we haven’t been able to plan our summer vacations on the beach, that weekend concert where we yell our throats hoarse, religious celebrations with our families, or a fun night out with friends.

In search of new coping mechanisms, we’ve resorted to less adequate replacements around our home.

Again, technology becomes problematic as an artificial alternative.

Infinite scrolling, the broad range of selections, and the convenience have made it hard to regulate activities. Online gaming or binge-watching Netflix, for example, have led to disruptions to productivity and physical well-being.

Other emotional rewards around us have also taken on an addictive dimension, with a greater prevalence of substance use and eating disorders.

Increased substance use especially has contributed to exacerbations of anxiety and depressive symptoms.

Unfortunately, the very rewards with which we use to relieve stress have only compounded the likelihood of burnout.

With the advent of vaccines, it seems that a “return to normalcy” is on the horizon.

Yet, the pandemic has caused great strain on both our mental and physical health. As we heal, we must still carry forth crucial lessons for our well-being.

The changes of this year have brought to light the importance of structure in our lives.

As humans, we need boundaries when interacting with our environment. These can be physical, emotional, spatial, or temporal. These boundaries provide a clear divide between work and rest, and between the self and the world.

This, in turn, may allow stress to be contained within a manageable and finite domain, even if it’s far from the rewards that make us happy.

When we sit in the midst of a heavy workload, it’s important to soothe and encourage ourselves. We can do this with enlivening activities and interactions, either during lunch or at the end of the month.

Burnout, anxiety, or depressive symptoms are not limited to the pandemic. However, we can take the basic lessons of the past and re-introduce them to our new, new normal.

Dr. Marc Lener is a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City and Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Singula Institute. Singula Institute, a 501(c)(3) organization, is a technologically-assisted, precision medicine mental health research clinic and social impact community whose vision is to transform mental health diagnostics and treatment for each individual.

Shirley W Li is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Neuroscience and English. Li aims to bridge the beauty of language and that of science, and, with a passion for social impact, she hopes to spread awareness through educational creative writing. Outside of lab and classes, Shirley is currently an intern at Singula Institute, a non-profit mental health care startup.