Correction: An earlier version of this article stated Olivia Messer drove to Florida in September. She drove to Florida in August. The article has been corrected.
Olivia Messer can pinpoint the exact moment she realized she could no longer outrun the burnout.
After a year of reporting on the coronavirus for the Daily Beast, she started looking ahead to what life would like look as more Americans received their vaccinations. As we returned to “normal,” would we face some kind of collective post-traumatic stress disorder?
“Are we all going to suddenly — now that we know we’re safe — allow ourselves to actually contemplate how unsafe we were for so long? Is that the space where breakdowns are going to happen?” she said.
But instead of writing a story about it, she found herself living it. As a reporter, she knew many were hitting their “pandemic wall,” so she decided to take a few days off work.
“During that time, someone that I loved very much died. I was grieving. I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll just go back to work when I can stop crying every day.’ I went back to work, but I was numb. Within a day or two I called a meeting and was like, ‘I can’t do my job anymore,’ ” Messer said.
“It was that break that allowed me to take stock of how I was spending my time and how it felt and what I thought I was capable of, and I had the realization that I was no longer capable of doing what I needed to do for work,” she said. “Like many covid reporters, I was working the hardest I’d ever worked on what felt like the most important story of my lifetime. … It wasn’t until I took my foot off the gas that I realized how bad it had gotten.”
The signs had been there, she said. While she was on medical leave in August, she drove the 18 hours to Florida to see her family. In November, faced with another surge in the virus and confronted with a gloomy New York City winter as her mental health deteriorated, she returned home again.
At 29, Messer knows she’s lucky enough to have the support of family to fall back on as she works through exposure therapy at home. That’s not an option for everyone.
With vaccinations initiated for half of Americans over 16, the triage stage of the pandemic may seem to be over for some, but such external progress markers can mask or even induce a flurry of conflicting emotional, physical or cognitive states. For some women, who have borne the brunt of the domestic burdens in addition to work pressure, the breaking point may occur now that there’s some breathing room.
“I think people have been in shock, powering through and not stopping to think of what has happened. Now I see women beginning to come out of that and starting to grasp the full extent of this pandemic on their lives,” said Boston-based psychiatrist Maureen Sayres Van Niel.
Women are more likely to say they are experiencing an overwhelming workload — 20 percent more frequently than men, according to a recent study by employee engagement firm Glint. In smaller organizations, that number jumped to 28 percent. The gap was even more glaring for leadership positions, in which women cited experiencing an overwhelming workload 41 percent more frequently than men.
“Women are relied upon in the U.S. to be the social safety net because of the lack of national policies to ensure all workers have access to paid leave and quality, affordable child care,” said Diana Boesch, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. “It’s not surprising that women, who perform the majority of care for their families, are fraying apart under the strain.”
James C. Jackson, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University’s intensive-care recovery center, said he is seeing this play out with health-care workers who are experiencing delayed trauma.
“During the pandemic, a lot of us have been worried about meeting our fundamental needs, and some of us haven’t had the luxury, if you will, of stepping back and reflecting on how incredibly damaging this has been for us psychologically,” he said. “We’ve been engaged in caring for our kids, we’ve been attending to our parents, putting out fires. We may become newly overwhelmed by the force of everything.”
Jackson, who often works with veterans, likens the situation to soldiers’ focus on staying alive in war, only to experience an onset of PTSD symptoms once they are back home.
“When the battle is over, they collapse,” he said. “I think that may be the near-universal experience of ICU providers.”
Anniversaries are powerful triggers, he noted, positing that passing the one-year mark in March may have started to reveal what people are struggling with now.
For psychiatrist Kimberly Gordon, burnout isn’t even an adequate term. She treats patients from underserved communities, living and working through Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Instead, she frames the current conversation as one of moral injury, which has been studied in health-care workers.
“The difference between burnout and moral injury is important because using different terminology reframes the problem and the solutions. Burnout suggests that the problem resides within the individual, who is in some way deficient. It implies that the individual lacks the resources or resilience to withstand the work environment. Since the problem is in the individual, the solutions to burnout must be in the individual, too, and therefore, it is the individual’s responsibility to find and implement them,” according to a 2019 study published in the journal Federal Practitioner.
Therefore, like in the corporate world, the solutions focus on individual self-care instead of the work environment, the authors say: “While there is nothing inherently wrong with any of those practices, it is absurd to believe that yoga will solve the problems.”
But for so many, leaving their job is simply not a financial possibility.
For Marcia Howard, the Cheez-Its were a breaking point.
She started a new job at the beginning of the pandemic, working as a creative operations director at a Fortune 500 company. Her husband freelances and she says his work is not as stable as hers.
“I’m a Black woman. Between the pandemic and everything that happened to George Floyd and the summer of protests, there’s just a lot going on with a new job. Suddenly, I’m home schooling, so it’s very exhausting. So I had that first wave of, ‘Oh, gosh, I’m tired. I don’t feel like I can do anything. I stay up all night, looking at my phone and just really can’t focus,’ ” she said.
Then school restarted.
“I’ve never thought about quitting more,” said Howard, who lives in New York City.
She says she’s been told by her company that she can take time off as she needs, but it’s not that simple.
“It is all really wonderful to hear. But trying to prove myself in a corporate environment as the only Black leader, can I?” Howard said.
Howard says she was recently told by her therapist that she is on the verge of depression: “This is what burnout looks like. You’re not functioning well,” the 37-year old was told.
“I feel like everyone is starting to think the world is getting back to normal, and I just can’t even bring myself to be hopeful about it,” she said. “It’s just this idea that it will sort of carry on and keep going, and a lot of women at my job, we’re just all talking about quitting all the time.”
Her son is back to in-person learning now. At his first school event, she realized she forgot to bring the Cheez-Its for the class snack.
“I just broke down in the car and I started crying,” she said. “It turns out everything has been overwhelming. And there’s no shaking it.”