Federal agencies are now warning that a historic wave of mental health problems is approaching, including depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide, according to The Washington Post. Nearly half of Americans report the COVID-19 crisis is harming their mental health according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll. A consensus appears to be emerging among mental health experts that this pandemic is the perfect storm for feeling powerless, anxious, and susceptible to unhealthy thoughts.
Mental exhaustion, brain fatigue, or burnout is something that many of our employees accept as a necessary consequence of having a career, even in ordinary times. However, left unchecked, a state of chronic exhaustion leads to cynicism and detachment, feelings of ineffectiveness, and lack of accomplishment. Even worse, it can lead to serious health conditions including depression, high blood pressure, and cardiac diseases.
Fortunately, if you can spot the early signals in your employees, you can intervene with recommendations that can make a world of difference.
Early signals to identify
The key to avoiding the long-term effects of mental exhaustion is to stop it before it becomes a chronic condition. Watch out for these symptoms:
- The brain slows down. Your employee may be having short-term memory lapses or struggling to follow complex discussions. They may find it difficult to multitask or keep track of details with the same level of effectiveness. They may even feel confused and struggle to concentrate as this symptom progresses.
- Difficulty sleeping and feeling tired at work. At night, they toss and turn, and come daytime, they’re drowsy. The sleep cycle is off, and sleep deprivation, or even a reduction in the hours of solid sleep, can lead to many other health issues.
- Irritability or sadness. Negative emotions are primary and secondary responses to mental exhaustion and the first two symptoms, respectively. If the quality of your employees' working relationships or personal relationships is deteriorating because they are acting out with negative emotions, this is a can’t-miss signal of mental exhaustion.
- Eating habits have changed. Your employee has either lost their appetite or is engaging in stress eating to self-medicate. Stress eaters typically don’t go for celery and peanut butter either; they are likely reaching for fattening, carb-loaded comfort foods.
- Lack of motivation. Now the previous symptoms are snowballing. Your employee’s lack of sleep and proper diet are exacerbating his or her mental acuity and emotional sensitivity issues. This cycle must be reversed, ASAP.
How to reverse course
Here are some recommendations you may consider providing to employees who are showing signs of mental and emotional fatigue or stress:
- Seek out a professional, licensed therapist with experience in mental exhaustion or the specific issue the employee is facing. Fortunately, there are many because these conditions are so prevalent. A recommendation to seek professional help is the most important suggestion you can provide your employees.
- Communicate concerns with a caring person like a family member or friend with empathy and/or similar circumstances. Sharing concerns reduces the sense that one is alone and provides a feeling of communal support that is vital to mental well-being.
- Practice mindfulness and meditation. Explore the practice of meditation or just take a mindfulness break several times a day. Consider encouraging all of your employees to try this simple exercise: Close your eyes, breathe slowly, and get in touch with the pure sensation of yourself sitting. Think about the position of your feet on the ground and your shoulders against the seat, and just be present with yourself. At home, take this a step further and reduce all sensory inputs, like light and noise. There are some great apps to use for this, including Calm, and YouTube videos as well.
- Stop identifying so strongly with “virtues” that kill. We’re among the most productive workers on earth, known for our American Exceptionalism. Some of the virtues that are exalted in this country seep into our individual identities. We think we can do more and more. We can do it all, and we can do it all at once. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, ask your employee to slow down. Careers aren’t sprints; they’re marathons, and your exhausted worker can’t win a marathon by collapsing at the 18th mile marker.
- Improve the quality of your life outside of work. Do more of what you enjoy, including things that relax you when it gets close to bedtime, and things that energize your mind and body throughout the day (when you’re not working). Exercise more, make art and music a priority, and get a change of scenery on the weekend (keeping in mind social distancing). Upgrading the quality of life at a time like this is a key to mental acuity and sanity.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, mental exhaustion was an insidious epidemic. As a caring employer, you know that your employees are more than just a cog in an economic machine; they are important people with value in their professional and personal lives. Please, take the necessary steps to spot the signals of their mental exhaustion and encourage them to seek the help they deserve.
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