Help! I’m so burned out and don’t see any solutions.

Dear Dr. Andrea,

I’ve been struggling with my job for a long time – huge workload, burnout and changes that have resulted in my personality not fitting with what management wants. I’m restricted in what I can do for a job for various reasons, so I’ve been unable to find another job after years of hunting. And then came the pandemic, which just killed my ability to find something else entirely.

I have had “coronabrain” for months, and I’m still not doing well. I get in trouble about every other week. I can’t problem-solve these days and unfortunately that’s become my job (though I never would have applied for what my job has turned into). I’m failing every day. At this point they can’t afford to get rid of me due to a hiring freeze and God knows I can’t leave. I haven’t had backup at the office for years on end so nobody knows what I do anymore anyway. I can’t go on stress leave (it’s a pay cut and this is my busy season) and frankly, even if I went out on it, I fear I’d be just as stupid and awful after three months of rest. Taking time off in the past hasn’t refreshed my brain. And what would I do at home anyway?

How do I get my brain back in gear? Meditation isn’t working, I’m afraid of side effects if I go on anti-depression drugs. I just don’t know what to do except wait to get fired. I’m in therapy, which doesn’t seem to be doing enough.

– No Solutions

This sounds soul-crushing, and I can imagine that you feel so trapped and exhausted. You’ve been feeling burned out for a long time, and the special stresses of these past months have no doubt exacerbated things greatly. So climbing out of this won’t be a one-time event; it will be a series of steps, one at a time, steady and consistent.

You talk of things working or not working, problems solved or not solved. But the solutions are more complicated – yet also more hopeful – than that. Every day that you take a step toward circumstances that will work better for you is a day closer to feeling more emotionally healthy. And the more days you string together, the more momentum you gain to keep it going, and the more your brain heals. Something doesn’t have to “work” right away, but it can be a move in the right direction – which can help you get away from the all-or-none thinking that feeds hopelessness. So let’s break down what those steps need to be.

First, your job is harming you. Period. It is undermining your self-efficacy and mental functioning on a daily basis. How beaten down do you want to let yourself get? How much do you believe you deserve? If a workplace was poisoning you physically, you would likely view it as unacceptable and leave. I’m not sure this is that different. I know you’re restricted in what you can do, and you’ve looked for years. But no matter your limitations, there must be other options; might some learned helplessness have set in? The drawbacks of other job possibilities are likely outweighed by the drawbacks of your current misery. So it’s time to ask real questions about what standards you need to loosen – pay and prestige, for starters – for the sake of movement toward health.

Next, burnout and hopelessness thrive on loneliness, and my guess is that it’s been quite difficult to keep connections going strong with other people given all the challenges you’re facing. So, prioritize boosting your social support, as exhausted as you may be. The other tenets of self-care that sound cliche but really do matter, like getting time outdoors, physical movement (which you probably feel too tired for, but it can help you get energy) and trying to protect your sleep as much as possible are also crucial here. It is good that you are in therapy, but again, that is just one tool – not a switch to change everything. But try to use it to activate yourself toward specific weekly goals and to label and challenge catastrophic and all-or-none thinking – including about potential medication.

Finally, a sense of purpose is the best defense against hopelessness and burnout. Your job has strayed far from that, but where else might you look for meaning these days? Moments of beauty, humor or creativity? Helping others, even in small ways? Music, a sunset, a tasty peach or a little sunflower seedling? It may sound trite, but giving yourself the power to create small moments of calm in your home environment can help you connect with the bigger picture – which is what keeps all of us going.

– – –

Ask Dr. Andrea is a question-and-answer series from The Lily, an online publication of The Washington Post, with licensed clinical psychologist and Georgetown University adjunct professor Andrea Bonior.

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