Clinician helps others work through employment, pandemic burnout

By Catherine Robertson Souter
October 4th, 2021
Sari Chait, Ph.D., a clinician with a private practice in Newton, Mass.
Sari Chait, Ph.D., a clinician with a private practice in Newton, Mass., where she works with issues around health psychology and anxiety, depression, and stress, has seen an increase this past year in clients who come to her with symptoms of burnout.

After 18 months of a fever pitch of stress and anxiety, it is no wonder that people are feeling burnt out. Having our worlds upended, with forced time to reflect, has left a lot of us questioning what we are doing and wondering if our lives meet our values.

In a March study done by Indeed, the employment website, burnout for workers has risen since the previous year with more than half (52 percent) of respondents reporting feeling burned out, while more than two-thirds (67 percent) reported that the feeling increased during the pandemic. 

Burnout is not a recognized diagnoses in the DMS-5 or ICD-10. Yet, it is widely understood to play a role in workplace productivity and job and life satisfaction.

Sari Chait, Ph.D., a clinician with a private practice in Newton, Mass., where she works with issues around health psychology and anxiety, depression, and stress, has seen an increase this past year in clients who come to her with symptoms of burnout.

She spoke with Catherine Robertson Souter about her experience working with and treating signs of burnout.

The ongoing pandemic, and the uncertainty and frustrations around it, are really taking their toll on us all. How does this play into burnout in work or with other responsibilities?

It is hard to tease out what is burnout versus anxiety or stress and they certainly go hand in hand. I am seeing a lot of folks who are just burning out in trying to manage everything. There is the constant information we are getting around what is safe. A lot of clients are dealing with moving targets as to when they are going to return to the office.

There are a lot more demands on parents to balance work and life responsibilities, managing children who were remote and then not remote, while also managing work. Even people without children are dealing with added adjustments with working from home. There are these blurred boundaries as to when the day starts and ends so a lot of people are having a hard time having that separation between work and life.

There are reports of people rethinking their lives and their own boundaries and quitting jobs that no longer work for them, refusing to continue.

I have had a lot of those conversations with clients around this although I am not seeing a lot of people actually leaving the workforce by choice right now.

I have had a number of folks leaving because they feel they do not have a choice, because they are dealing with all those responsibilities that we were talking about, trying to manage child care or older parents. There have been unexpected deaths and illnesses that have shifted responsibilities so people are taking leaves or leaving jobs due to that. A lot of folks do talk about leaving or are thinking about it but they are scared to make that change at a time when things are so uncertain in so many areas.

What have you found to be the best tools to help people deal with burnout?

One of first signs that people tend to notice with this is a lack of motivation or engagement at their jobs, particularly when that is new for them. Taking a step back is crucial, reminding yourself what brought you into that job or field to begin with and what are the things you enjoyed. Then, start to problem solve around ways that you can either change jobs or adjust the responsibilities of your current job to get back to some of that.

Something that can be helpful when working from home is setting up boundaries. I will have clients take a few minutes at the beginning or end of their workday to take a walk around the block or go sit outside with a cup of coffee, something to imitate what would normally be their commute time. It draws a line in the sand between work and home life that can help manage some of those blurred boundaries.

I like to encourage people to find ways to get some of that relaxation regularly in small doses – whether it is taking 15 minutes at the end of the day or making sure to exercise regularly or incorporating mindfulness.

What if the burnout is more serious?

Depending on the severity and length of burnout, it is also about taking time to evaluate options. Sometimes, burnout is a sign that this is really not the right job for you anymore. Are there other opportunities out there that might better suit your needs?

And then I do a lot of work around communication, ways to speak to your manager about what your needs are, which ones are not being met. I think more places are introducing more flexibility into the work week so finding ways to find ways to meet your needs differently.

If we are talking about symptoms not related to working, is it still burnout? Or is it depression?

In general, if someone is feeling burnt out it is almost guaranteed that if you assess them using DSM criteria, they will also meet the criteria for depression and maybe anxiety.

We would say that they are dealing with anxiety and adjustment disorder in response to a stressor. But treatment is essentially the same, which is the good news. When I am doing ACT with someone for depression or anxiety, I am helping them to identify what it is they value and trying to find better ways to align their lives with their values.

Some of your other tools, as you blogged about on your website, include setting up a daily “worry time” and avoiding “doom scrolling,” spending too much time compulsively reading negative news stories.

Doom scrolling! Everyone does it. We need to set boundaries around our news consumption, like 10 minutes in the morning and 10 in the afternoon and turn off breaking news alerts on the cell phone.

Worry time is particularly helpful for general anxiety. You set aside 15-20 minutes when you are allowed to worry and during the rest of the day when you notice yourself worrying, you say ‘save it for worry time.’

If anything requires an action item, create a to do list or if you need to google things that you are concerned about, this is when you are allowed to search for stuff. Then, at end of worry time, put the notebook away.

It is really hard to start but if you practice it is essentially a form of stimulus control, training your brain to only allow worry at a certain time. For my clients that do it daily for one or two weeks, they have noticed a real reduction in how much worrying they are doing throughout the day.

In your experience, are psychologists feeling burnout too?

I do think it is happening more during the pandemic. Most of my colleagues or friends in the mental health profession are saying that they have never been this busy. Needs have gone up so much and, while we are glad that people are seeking out therapy, it is a lot.

There are also high rates of compassion fatigue. One of the usual things is that, as mental health professionals, we are helping people manage living through a pandemic while we ourselves are living through it. So, we are helping people work though problems we are also experiencing and that just adds new layers to the work we do.

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