By Mark Cox
Burnout, it appears, is having a moment.
When U.S. gymnast Simone Biles and tennis player Naomi Osaka recently withdrew from major competitions, citing stress and health concerns, the country sat up and took notice.
Such high-profile struggles helped push the issue of work-related mental health squarely into the spotlight. If even these two literal world-beaters could struggle under the pressure, people seemed to say, then who can blame the rest of us? Maybe, as Osaka put it, “It’s OK to not be OK.”
These two gifted athletes are far from alone in feeling overwhelmed by the demands of their careers, and not just in sports.
“Regardless of where you work, stress will likely be part of the package,” said Randi Smith, Ph.D., Psychology professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “Since most jobs demand that we adopt the persona of an über-efficient performer who meets deadlines and interacts well with others, work becomes a natural catalyst for our own insecurities and anxieties.”
Since the pandemic hit, the U.S. has officially become the most stressful workplace in the world. In offices and factories all around the country, frightening numbers have grappled this past year with an increase in anxiety and mental illness. The statistics make for grim reading: 75% of workers have directly experienced burnout, and 67% believe the situation is getting worse, not better.
For millions of Americans, the Covid pandemic has only compounded that sense of performance pressure by bringing the workplace right into their own homes.
“It can be pretty hard to ‘leave stress at the office’ when the office is your own dining-room table,” Smith said.
And if workers have been feeling the strain, college students have fared little better. When Covid suddenly shut down in-person classes last year, students not only saw their learning experience turned upside down, but many also immediately struggled with stress, health concerns, financial insecurity and housing issues.
At MSU Denver, student emergency-fund requests went up by around 600%, and requests for mental-health support rose sharply, said Erica Quintana-Garcia, director of the University’s Student Care Center.
“Immunocompromised students became increasingly fearful, and housing-insecure students were struggling to access shelters and outside resources,” she said.
Faced with surging demand and a nearly impossible workload, Quintana-Garcia and the Student Care Center team sought help from other departments for student outreach, hired temporary case managers and secured funding for an additional employee to bolster the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Over the past year, members of the student care team supported a staggering 5,442 students, Quintana-Garcia said, while avoiding burnout themselves.
“We very intentionally held regular check-ins, increased the frequency of one-to-ones and incorporated fun activities into our team meetings,” she said. “Basically, we made sure to always prioritize our own well-being because we knew we couldn’t be effective case managers if we weren’t taking care of ourselves.”
While Covid has wreaked havoc throughout the American workplace, there is some hope. For one thing, Smith said, more employers are recognizing the importance of mental well-being.
“This has been a long, slow evolution,” she said. “Mental health has finally come out of the closet. Conditions such as depression and anxiety are no longer shameful secrets, which is a wonderful kind of progress. There’s no turning back now.”
Quintana-Garcia has also found an unexpected silver lining in a difficult year.
“After seeing so many people struggling on so many fronts, universities can’t help but recognize the need to promote good mental health and provide proper, caring support for students,” she said. “This pandemic really humanized people, and I’m convinced the cultural shift it has triggered will absolutely be for the better.”
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