Burnout: What we’re feeling and how to use it to make positive change

Tuesday’s edition of Campus Conversations discussed mental health and well-being two years into the COVID-19 pandemic. (UC Berkeley video)

Americans are burned out after two years of COVID-19’s surges and dips upending life as we know it. Front-line workers experience this burnout one way. Remote workers feel it another. It hits everyone differently.

From a mental health perspective, pandemic-compounded exhaustion means taking a novel approach to well-being, according to panelists at Tuesday’s livestreamed edition of Campus Conversations, a monthly series in which UC Berkeley scholars and leaders discuss their work as it relates to the pressing issues of the day and take questions.

On a positive note, the panelists, all experts on mental health and well-being, said the inequities and unhappiness exposed by the pandemic have provided opportunities to re-imagine and reset the way we do things. They also highlighted the marvels of human hope, resilience and innovation.

“The mantra I always heard before the pandemic was, ‘The job is what it is. You can’t do anything about it, so you’re just going to have to step up to the plate,’” said Christina Maslach, a Berkeley professor emerita of psychology and a leading expert on burnout.

“The pandemic showed us the job doesn’t have to be what it is,” she added. “People were saying, ‘Wait, I don’t have to commute. I don’t have to do all these other things.’ So, I think we’re poised to really be more creative and think outside the box on this.”

Maslach was joined by Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology and founding director of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center; and Peter Cornish, Berkeley’s director of Counseling and Psychological Services.

Keltner, who teaches a popular course at Berkeley on human happiness, acknowledged a marked rise in mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety, in response to the pandemic, especially among younger people.

He pointed out that treatment doesn’t always have to require one-on-one therapy sessions with a clinical practitioner. It can involve simple daily acts and rituals that inspire awe and gratitude.

“I’m getting my Berkeley students in my happiness class to get outside and watch the sunset and go think about life and listen to the laughter of friends,” Keltner said. “I had a student who gave away a hundred chocolates for Valentine’s Day, just in the spirit of gratitude. … So, I think we have to kind of rethink how we enter this new phase of the pandemic. I’m seeing a lot of opportunity.”

For Cornish, the pandemic has been a mixed bag.

“I don’t want to be a wet blanket,” he said. “The reality is there are some people that have really suffered through this, people with less privileges and opportunities, … vulnerable populations, women, people with poor general health, those from lower-income and historically marginalized populations.”

Meanwhile, he added, “in the mental health industry, there’s a hunger for innovation. … We’re waking up in my profession, … which is a good thing. That’s the silver lining.”

All three panelists agreed there’s a need to challenge a stereotype that mental illness and/or burnout are the result of personal weaknesses rather than broader and more entrenched societal dysfunctions, such as economic inequity, racial injustice and a loneliness epidemic.

“There is a tendency to point the finger and say, ‘What is wrong with you?’ And so, burnout becomes the individual’s problem and weakness,” Maslach said. “I just want to make clear that the stereotype that mental illness is an individual failing is still strong. The question is, how do we change that?”


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