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Pandemic Fatigue, Global Burnout?

By Marieke Slovin Lewis / Prescott, Ariz.


The author, hiking on the Peavine Trail near her home in the Granite Dells in Prescott, Ariz.
The author hiking on the Peavine Trail near her home in the Granite Dells in Prescott, Ariz.

I remember the final push at the end of the semester when I was an undergraduate student. It was an all-encompassing race to get all of my papers and assignments finished, study for finals, take the finals, pack up my dorm room, and leave. I also remember that once everything was finished and I arrived home, my immune system would almost always crash and burn.


I don’t recall spending much time contemplating the end-of-semester cold or flu I came down with, but I have had similar experiences since. At times of great stress—leaving a job, moving houses, or both—my back has gone out, literally immobilizing me so that I have had to immediately stop overexerting myself and ask for help.


I have also experienced my body’s response to the expectation in the United States that every person must work to the point of burnout in order to “succeed.” It’s as if there is a competition for who can be the most innovative, make the most money, get the most “likes” on social media and so on. The trend has not been to turn off our computers and just be. Far from it. The trajectory has moved us farther and farther on the path of burnout and exhaustion.


As I’ve written about before in The Insider, I spent the past five years living in Europe. During this time, I met many Europeans—people from the Netherlands and Belgium and an expat from Canada—who were taking time off of work for burnout. This was a diagnosis they received from a therapist, and their time off was reimbursed as sick leave. It seems that burnout has become an accepted part of the human life cycle, the price we pay for progress.


I know I am not alone in this experience, and I also have the sense that this burnout is being experienced around the globe, collectively. I have been wondering if the earth itself is experiencing a burnout. Could the pandemic be the earth’s response?


Certainly, it has forced us all to slow down, hibernate in our various regions during multiple lockdowns, and contemplate the way we have been doing things. It has also given Earth a bit of a pause to breath; to take a cleansing inhale and exhale with fewer airplanes filling the sky, cars on the road, and nonstop movement and noise from people scurrying all over the globe.


Now that we are maybe, hopefully, approaching the end of the pandemic, there seems to be an exhaustion, the kind of heaviness you feel when you have a moment to relax and realize just how much you have been over-efforting. The pandemic is not over, but pandemic fatigue is very real.


There is no therapist to diagnose this collective exhaustion and guide us through a group debrief and healing process. There is no paid sick leave. It feels like we are beginning to return to business as usual, except that it isn’t working. Our heart just isn’t in it. In addition, the world seems so very polarized that I am not even sure how to approach any kind of global healing.


There is a collective trauma from one crisis after another. How and where do we even begin to try to point to the origin? It’s been happening for so long, perhaps since we began crawling out of the primordial ooze. I can see that in the last decade, the Trump presidency opened a Pandora’s box, dividing the United States and shaking things up around the world.


There has been a shift from democracy toward autocracy; from open minds to closed hearts; from welcoming and embracing those in need to othering and shaming. Reason and ethics seems to have been tossed out the window. We are exhausted, and tempers are running hot. The pandemic seems to have brought everything to a boiling point, and now the pot is boiling over.

 

I am reminded of the phrase, No pain, no gain. What if we just decided that we didn’t need quite so much gain in exchange for a lot less pain?


We are not taught to listen to our bodies or the signs that we may be on an unhealthy path. When I entered the workforce in my early twenties, I thought I had to do any and everything in order to demonstrate that I was invaluable. My goal was to transcend from seasonal status—I was a park ranger—to permanent, year-round, full-time work.


The problem with this mindset is that once you show your boss you will literally do anything for the job, there is no going back. You have become a “yes” person, and if you suddenly begin to advocate for yourself, you are met with pushback and labeled a problem employee.


Independent thinking and advocating for one’s well-being can be risky. What if we as a species began to demand that health and well-being became a part of the human life cycle instead of midlife crises and burnout? I believe we can exist in the world in a way that honors one another and the Earth.


 

Marieke Slovin Lewis is a writer, musician, singer-songwriter, yoga teacher, and editor. She holds a Ph.D. in Sustainability Education and writes music from people's life stories, using a method called Story-to-Song that she developed with a fellow doctoral student. She was recently recognized as a finalist for the 2021 Amateo Award for arts participation projects in Europe for her project, "On the Move: Poems and Songs of Migration," for which she wrote songs with refugees and asylum seekers in Brussels, Belgium about their migration experiences. Marieke is a wandering soul and has lived all over the world. She is currently living with her husband, three cats, and a big white husky in Prescott, Arizona.


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