Coping with ‘pandemic fatigue’ in the workplace

As the emergence of the Omicron variant and the latest Covid restrictions take their toll, 'pandemic fatigue' is on the rise, affecting people's day-to-day lives. Here our Head of Workplace Mental Health at Mental Health UK, Charlotte Maxwell Davies, shares her insight on how to cope in the workplace, though you can apply these tips anywhere.

So what is ‘pandemic fatigue’ or ‘covid burnout’?

I’m increasingly hearing about people in the workplace experiencing ‘pandemic fatigue’ or ‘covid burnout’.  WHO have defined pandemic fatigue as ‘demotivation to follow recommended protective behaviours, emerging gradually over time and affected by a number of emotions, experiences and perceptions’ (2020), which is concerning for the impact on society in reducing Covid infection rates, but also hugely impacts on the wellbeing of us all.

Many of us are experiencing exhaustion and a lack of motivation. This isn’t surprising, partly because Covid regulations have been reinstated to help curb the Omicron variant, and partly because the pandemic has been in our lives for almost two years now. We’ve been thrust into a cycle of being forced to restrict our habits and behaviours and then having to adjust to a life professing to being ‘normal again’. Many of us can struggle with this.

Differentiating between ‘necessary’, ‘routine’ and ‘nourishing’ activities

Just like in our personal lives, for healthy wellbeing at work we need variation and a balance of different types of activities. Although often challenging during lockdowns, many of us were able to get on with the ‘necessary’ tasks and activities in our work lives – things like meeting deadlines, responding to emails, paying invoices. However, lots of the ‘routine’ activities got a bit sidetracked or happened less frequently, such as team meetings, appraisals and regular communications. And many of the ‘nourishing’ activities at work were non-existent because of the circumstances; events such as team building, after-work drinks, creative sessions, catching up over a coffee etc. Often this imbalance within our working day can create a sense of depleted energy or demotivation, which can then create a vicious cycle – we are much less likely to engage in new or potentially nourishing activities if we are feeling fatigued or flat.

Because of the imposed changes, our rhythms, patterns and behaviours have changed and it can be difficult to just kickstart activities again at the drop of a hat. However, the less opportunity we give ourselves to partake in activities that may make us feel good, the more likely we are to continue feeling demotivated and stuck.

What can be useful is to consider the balance of your activities in your working day and make sure that you are implementing a healthy combination of necessary, routine and nourishing tasks. We may prioritise necessary activities, but it is vital there is a sense of balance between all three. Keeping a log of the different types of activities in your day can be rather eye-opening. Or retrospectively colour coding your work calendar highlighting which category each of your commitments belongs to can be useful in understanding how the range of activities is affecting you. If after doing this, your colour-coding highlights that your entire week is filled with necessary activities and there is no time for routine or nourishing activities, you are likely to get to the end of the week feeling exhausted and possibly en route to burnout.

So, what can we do about it? It can be really difficult trying to fit in time for ‘nourishing’ activities at work, particularly as they may be seen as ‘nice-to-do’ rather than essential. Try to think of it as your ‘battery recharge’ time – if you allow yourself some time in your working day to engage in this type of activity, you’re likely to return to the routine or necessary activities feeling refreshed, with an increased level of motivation and enthusiasm. And this will have a positive impact on your productivity and concentration levels.

Take pride in the fact that you’re taking control of your own wellbeing, which in itself, is a very powerful tool.

– Charlotte Maxwell-Davies
Head of Workplace Mental Health
(currently on maternity leave)

It can also be hard to make happen, therefore scheduling is really important. Book in the time for your nourishing activity, whether it’s a walk in your lunch hour, a rest, a catch up with a colleague, or a creative session for a new project. It won’t happen by itself – and it’s much easier to complete if you commit to a specific time to do it. Put it in your calendar, give yourself a timeframe and don’t budge on it, even if the time comes and you feel like you can’t face it or haven’t got time – do it anyway! I like to call it ‘the outside-in’ approach; rather than waiting for the time you ‘feel up to it’ (that time may never come!) it’s worth getting on with it anyway as more often than not it alters how you feel for the better.

It’s important to add that this isn’t a quick fix and sometimes change can take a few weeks to take effect. But take pride in the fact that you’re taking control of your own wellbeing, which in itself, is a very powerful tool.

Achieving that work-life balance

As well as reviewing how you are spending your working hours, it is now more important than ever to keep an eye on work-life balance and to establish and maintain boundaries around the two.

Do you work at home or live at work?

Make sure you work to set hours; communicate these working hours to your colleagues; create separate personal and work accounts on your devices and, where possible, set up your work area in a separate area within your home. If you have clear boundaries and give yourself time to step away from your desk you can recharge and work smarter rather than longer.

*Please always talk to your GP or local Mental Health service should you feel that you’re struggling with your mental health, or are experiencing any thoughts of suicide or self-harm.*

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