Fighting Burnout and COVID-19 at the Same Time

Fighting Burnout and COVID-19 at the Same Time

Our Lessons on Leadership articles typically focus more on “How do I…?” topics. Today, we are casting our standard format to the wind, and Rob Bogue, co-author of  Extinguish Burnout, is having us consider the ‘why’ behind the ‘how.’ Because even with the best steps in place, if we don’t do some introspection and understand the why, we can still struggle to reach our end goal. So, here’s to mental health and understanding ourselves a little bit better. Take it away, Rob.


COVID-19 turned the world upside down. It made work-at-home a new imperative, and widened the digital divide. It created fear and concern for everyday activities that terrorism was never able to accomplish. The bitter aftertaste of COVID-19 is also leaving many people fighting burnout while they’re fighting to flatten the COVID-19 curve.

What is Burnout?

The definitions of burnout mostly revolve around the categories of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI): exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. You know you’re there when you feel like you can’t go on or that it’s pointless. When you feel like you’re never going to be able to catch up, achieve your dreams, or even continue to tread water, you’re there.

However, burnout can be simplified by eliminating the inconclusive criteria, and by separating the effect from the cause. Start by looking at exhaustion. We’ve all done a project, either in our work life or our backyard, that has left us utterly exhausted and exhilarated at the same time. It turns out that exhaustion is a temporary state after a burst of intense work, and is as easily quenched as drinking a cool glass of water on a hot day. Exhaustion only lingers when we can’t find a way to get the refreshment we need.

Cynicism is a result of feeling like we can’t change things. Since we do not feel like we can change the situation, we grouse about it instead. Once we’ve reached the point of feeling like we can’t be successful, all there is left is to complain about it. That is why cynicism is the outcome of feeling ineffective.

Learned Helplessness and Learned Hope

It was a different time. Martin Seligman and his colleagues were experimenting with dogs and mild electrical shocks. They discovered something they called learned helplessness. If the dogs were not initially given a way to escape the shocks, they wouldn’t try to escape them later — even when they had every opportunity. Elephant trainers had known this for years. They would tie a baby elephant’s leg to a post with a chain. The baby elephant would learn to not try to remove the restraint from its leg. That’s why a large elephant can be restrained by a tiny rope with a stake that’s barely in the ground.

More recently, one of Seligman’s colleagues, Steven Maier, used a fMRI to discover the root of their experiments all those years ago. What he discovered flipped the model on its head. The dogs and elephants weren’t learning helplessness, they were failing to learn about their ability to influence (or control) their situation. They failed to learn that they’d be able to escape their pain and restrictions.

Through our experiences, most of us have discovered that we have some degree of influence or control over our situation, and therefore we have hope that things can and will get better.

How COVID-19 Kills Hope

The problem is that COVID-19 has changed the rules. We don’t know what kind of efficacy we can have in controlling our world now. Our expectations of our performance don’t match what we’re seeing. We’re used to getting things done; but in the new world, it seems harder, more complex, and less certain. The underpinnings that buoyed our hope are under attack as we focus more attention on things we used to take for granted. This decreases our overall performance and makes us less certain of our capacity to get things done in general.

COVID-19 kills our hope by creating a gap between our expectations about what we’re able to do and get done and what we find that we’re doing and getting accomplished.

Mind the Gap

In fighting COVID-19, we’re faced with more challenges than normal — all the way down to finding toilet paper — and we’ve failed to make allowances for these additional concerns and activities. The disparity between what we want and expect to get done and what we are getting done is ever-widening, and if we don’t mind this gap, we’ll find ourselves falling into the pit of burnout.

Just like fighting COVID-19 is a relatively simple set of things — wash your hands, cover your mouth and nose, and provide distance between you and others — so, too, is the answer to fighting burnout straightforward. Anchor your expectations in reality. Recognize that you won’t accomplish as much now as you would normally. But this isn’t forever, and it’s not about your ability.


Jacquelyn Adams, an IEEE Senior member, is a nationally-recognized leader in employee learning and development. Find more of her Lessons on Leadership columns here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.

Rob Bogue’s dozen years of experience in business have shown him the keys to extinguishing burnout by making the complicated simple and opening communication. Follow him and his wife, Terri’s, work at ExtinguishBurnout.com.

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