Despite vaccinations making their way around the world, and some countries taking steps towards a new sense of normalcy, one of the main problems from the COVID-19 pandemic is the pervading sense of endlessness. Not only has there been severe turbulence in our everyday lives for the last 18-plus months – is it really that long? – but when the “normality” light seems to be brightening at the end of the longest tunnel ever, the [insert name of the latest dominant variant] starts running riot. And it’s draining.
For our mental health and wellbeing, an important step is to discuss real issues that affect us all, as human beings, with someone who knows what they’re talking about. And in this instance, an old friend of Celluloid Junkie, Dr. Heather Morgan of Harkins Theatres (based in Arizona, United States) is exactly that person. Not only Vice President of Content and Programming for Harkins, Dr. Morgan also holds a PhD in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. She’s often sought out for advice, coaching and guidance on industry topics surrounding people management.
Back in November 2020, Dr. Morgan talked about tackling the mental health crisis brought about by COVID-19 that greatly affected the exhibition workforce. This time the focus is on the post-COVID prevalence of burnout.
What most concerns you about the effect that COVID-19 has had on the industry’s workforce?
Many people have been experiencing a staggering number of stressors throughout the pandemic. Fear of the unknown, financial insecurity, health concerns, physical and social isolation, the disruption of routines and more have left countless people suffering from stress, anxiety, depression and – perhaps unexpectedly – apathy, to name a few.
A 2021 study from the American Psychiatric Association found that 43% of adults say the pandemic has seriously impacted their mental health. Additional impacts reported in this study include problems sleeping, difficulty concentrating, fighting more with loved ones, weight gain and substance abuse. [US Survey Company] The Harris Poll conducted a study at the end of 2020 and found that 76% of respondents were currently experiencing occupational burnout. At a time when the exhibition industry is facing significant challenges and needs top performance from its people to help navigate these uncharted waters, it is likely that many of us are not bringing our best to the table in the current climate.
What actually is “burnout”? And how can people recognize it?
Burnout occurs when excessive and prolonged stress leaves us in a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion.
If you are approaching or experiencing burnout, you may feel resentful, cynical, drained, helpless, overwhelmed, unmotivated and ineffective. Physically, you may be experiencing disturbances in your eating and sleeping habits, feeling tired, or feeling physically ill frequently. To cope with this, you may find yourself avoiding other people and your responsibilities, lashing out or using food, alcohol or other substances as coping mechanisms. It isn’t uncommon to have the occasional bad day (we all do), but if you find that you’re feeling this way the majority of the time, you may be in a state of burnout.
What can people do to pre-empt, or treat, burnout?
Burnout is not only extremely unpleasant for the person experiencing it, and those around them, it can also be very costly for organizations. According to the American Psychological Association, if avoided or not dealt with properly, it can result in severely diminished levels of engagement and productivity as well as increased rates of staff turnover. Additionally, once burnout is present, it often requires significant time and effort to recover. Because of this, burnout is truly a case where “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.
An important characteristic for people to possess that will help them prevent not only burnout, but also many of the other mentioned negative consequences, would be resilience. Resilience is the ability to effectively cope with and recover from situations of adversity including trauma, tragedy or other significant sources of stress.
Is resilience something that people can “work on” or develop? And, if so, how?
Absolutely, they can. Resilience is not a fixed state; it will ebb and flow throughout various periods of our lives. It is like any other skill that can be strengthened over time with focus and intention. Resilience is also a multidimensional construct, meaning that there are numerous components to it. While by no means an exhaustive list, below are a few resilience-building strategies that people may find helpful:
Challenge yourself and seek out adversity
You cannot build resilience while staying safely in your comfort zone and the discomfort may feel more manageable if it is self-imposed. Strategically put yourself into challenging situations that force you to adapt and overcome. Consider changing up your routine by navigating your world blindfolded for a day to remove the comfort of having your vision. Step into a triathlon or onto a karaoke stage. Commit to a minimalist challenge and purge possessions from your home every day for a month. Cut your grocery budget by 75% for a month. Anything that creates novelty, fear, difficulty and doubt will help build resilience. Get creative.
Work toward wellness
There is an inextricable link between the health of your body and the health of your mind. Though stressful times are when you may feel like it the least, that is the time when it is most important to double down on your physical health. Exercise regularly, eat nutritiously, hydrate consistently and get the recommended hours of sleep each night.
Find your people
When going through difficult times, having a strong support group around you can make all the difference. This is why the isolation associated with COVID has been particularly damaging to mental health for some. Whether virtually or physically, find and develop meaningful relationships with people that understand you, support you, listen to you and care about you. Also, consider seeking support and guidance from qualified mental health professionals. Reach out to and lean on these people to help you deal with tough times. And don’t be afraid to admit you need support when you’re struggling.
Find your purpose
In times of tremendous adversity, it is common to ask ourselves “why”? Why is this happening? Why does anything that I do matter? Why should I keep trying? Having purpose answers the “why”question at those times in your life. You get just one life and it goes by very quickly. Figure out what is most important to you, what you want to accomplish, what your strengths are and what is within your control. Also, many people find that nothing makes them feel like they matter in this life quite as much as helping others. Seek out opportunities to volunteer, mentor and otherwise help those around you.
Maintain your mindset
When everything seems bad, that’s the time to focus on everything that is good. Start a gratitude journal and use it every single day. Think about all the things and people in your life that you are grateful for. Accept that some things are beyond your control, but that your response to those things is always within your control. When in the thick of it, remember “this too shall pass” – all storms, no matter how trying, pass in time and there are better days ahead.