Friday, December 8, 2023

Running On Empty: Have We Already Hit Peak Exhaustion, Even In A New Year?

Just six weeks into the new year, some of us are feeling ‘over it’ as we hit peak exhaustion in a physical and mental landscape affected by the ongoing pandemic, flooding and cyclones, post-holiday blues, pressures like finances and parenting, and so much uncertainty. Sarah Lang asks some questions – and gets some answers.

Who else is feeling ‘meh,’ to some extent, right now? As in, feeling ‘over it’ even though we’re only six weeks into the new year. Is it because our New Year’s resolutions haven’t materialised? (If so, it’s not you, it’s them – they’re inherently flawed.) After everything we’ve been through over the last few years, did we put some expectations on how the new year would feel – then didn’t actually feel that way when 2023 arrived?  

Did we hope the holidays would be refreshing but actually they were busy? Did we catch Covid then, and go back to work still feeling sub-par? Did we get exhausted juggling work with school holidays? Are we paying back our credit cards after the expenses of Christmas and the summer holidays? Do we have post-holiday blues and finding it hard getting back into a ‘work frame of mind’? For those in the North Island, were the floods not just an ordeal but also a reminder of cataclysmic climate change? And then we get a cyclone to follow – and the news that climate change is likely to increase unpredictable cyclones?

‘Do we feel that there’s no ‘new normal’ – or at least that there’s no new normal we can wrap our heads around, let alone get behind?’

Uncertainty is a big thing. What does ‘time’ – or a ‘new year’ – even mean now? As in, do we still feel kind of frozen in time, because the pandemic still isn’t over? Are we worried about getting Covid again or getting long Covid? Are we still struggling to decide when and where to take precautions like avoiding indoor public spaces or wearing masks on public transport? Do we feel that there’s no ‘new normal’ – or at least that there’s no new normal we can wrap our heads around, let alone get behind?

Are we struggling with the rising cost of living? Are we worried ChatGPT will take our jobs? Are we dealing with burnout or a toxic boss? Are we feeling ‘over’ shouldering the mental load of our household?

Are some of these things taking a toll on our relationships? Are those of us without partners, close friends or family in the same town feeling lonelier than ever? Are we exhausted by parenting and also worrying about what kind of world our kids will inherit?

Do we, like Jacinda said when she resigned, feel we no longer have enough in the tank? And how do we refuel, especially if we can’t afford a spa day or lunch with a friend – or when we can’t even manage to get a break from the kids?

‘The World Feels Like A LOT Just Now.’

I asked some women in online communities if these questions and this topic resonated with them. And the answer was YES.

Robyn*, a 39-year-old writer from Wellington, says: “Oh my goodness, so much this. It feels like we keep trying to find reasons for it that fit our circumstances, but it’s so widespread. My friends and family in the UK have had a really hard time getting back in the work frame of mind after Christmas, and they all think it’s because it’s a hard, cold, dark winter, whereas all my friends on this side of the world are experiencing exactly the same lack of mojo and they’re blaming it on summer.”

“The world feels like A LOT just now. Covid is definitely part of it – when we were still in lockdown stage, it was tough, but the decisions were out of our hands. Now it feels like every day involves a million micro-decisions about what is safe to do or not do, and the responsibility of doing that for our families is exhausting. For me, the other factors making life feel exhausting right now are financial, and climate-related.”

“Over the summer hols, my whole family was more tired than I’ve ever seen them. We were all taking so many naps. It’s been really, really hard to break out of that nice, relaxed family time and feel motivated for work again. I also think having Covid affects your ongoing health and mood to an extent where it’s noticeable. Even if it’s not officially long Covid, it’s had a huge impact on my energy levels.”

Josie, a 44-year-old administrator and single mum from Auckland, says: “I’m so tired. Bone marrow sucked out of my body tired. I’m trying to write a really simple thing for work, and my brain can’t make it work. The floods made it worse, for sure. An extra week home with the kids, the collective suffering and the shock of climate change actually happening already, not being able to go to the beach or park or whatever, tomatoes still being $9 a kilo, the effects of Covid – fatigue tinnitus, weird skin stuff – lingering. I feel like I need to be rebooted or something!”

“There’s a collective exhaustion due to having to constantly adapt to a quickly-changing world.”

Kate*, a 33-year-old Auckland academic, feels that the pandemic and the floods – particularly the former – have left her exhausted. “It’s something I’ve talked about with people I work with: a collective exhaustion due to having to constantly adapt to a quickly-changing world. It makes me wonder if the exhaustion is a side effect of collective shock. Of still having to keep moving even though the earth has shifted.”

Harper*, a 42-year-old graphic designer from Wellington, has a different take. “It feels like there’s less of a collective safe space to say if you’re actually really good and happy, as it feels insensitive or you don’t want to make others feel worse [if they’re struggling]. So our collective discourse is more negative as a result.” However, surely we can manage to be happy that others are doing well even if we’re not?

What Does ‘Resilience’ Even Mean Anymore?

Many of us are sick of being told to be resilient, but then again, we do need tools to cope. And cultivating resilience isn’t about always being positive. It doesn’t mean everything should be, to use a cliché, water off a duck’s back.

Dr Karen Reivich – Director of Training Programs for the Penn Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania – is the curriculum developer and lead instructor for Penn Resilience Program, an evidence-based training program used in schools and organisations around the world. Reivich, author of the book The Resilience Factor, said in an interview with about what Covid has taught us that resilience is “the ability to navigate adversity and grow through challenges. I like the word ‘navigate’ because when you navigate in a car, you tap resources – like your GPS – for directions. Resilience is the same. When we have resilience, we’re tapping into our internal resources to overcome adversity.”

Reivich no longer describes resilience as ‘bouncing back’. “A ball bounces, but the word ‘navigate’ reminds us that when we are resilient, we use tools. This can be inner resources like our optimism or sense of purpose. Or, it can be external, like tapping our relationships and relying on others.”

Dr Denise Quinlan worked alongside Reivich and Professor Martin Seligman (the founder of positive psychology) for seven years – teaching business leaders and educators around the world how to use wellbeing science to build resilience. She is the only trainer from New Zealand selected to deliver the pair’s Penn Resiliency Programme. 

As co-founder and director of the New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing & Resilience, Denise and her team of trainers support business and education professionals to cope with ‘overwhelm’, avoid burnout, and get through uncertainty and change. The Institute offers face-to-face, webinar and online courses and resources.

Denise says, yes, people are most definitely feeling ‘meh’ and ‘over it’. “This is what we’re hearing from all over New Zealand and what we’re grappling with in our work to support workplaces and people. The questioning and sense of malaise is real for many people – and there are lots of different drivers.”

“We’re experiencing a collective ‘hitting the wall’.”

One being, of course, Covid. “We’ve had several years of dislocation and disruption. We thought Covid would only be one year, and tried to manage, running on adrenaline. We did step up collectively. Some people put their personal needs aside – particularly, to keep a business going. But there’s still no end in sight with Covid, no crisis or disruption eased, no let-up in trying to get work out the door.” And now, in the new year, our adrenalin and energy are used up. “We’re experiencing a collective ‘hitting the wall’.”

Denise talks about ‘overwhelm’: “the feeling that everything [at work] is urgent and important. But you’ve got to look after yourself, and be realistic about what you can get done”.

“There is a way through these things. For individuals, that’s self-awareness, self-compassion, and self-care. That includes avoiding toxic perfectionism, and learning to manage what we can control – which includes ruthlessly prioritising what matters most, and doing whatever makes you glad to be alive – for instance, getting out in nature. And it’s also accepting what we can’t control.”

“With resilience, personally, it’s learning to swim. Collectively, it’s the health of the pool.” Denise wants us to cultivate collective resilience in workplaces and in the community. “The biggest thing is taking action in the workplace,” she says, to create a safe, supportive environment – not just between employers and employees, but also between colleagues.

Tips On How To Feel More Hopeful

  • Connection is key. Spend time with family members and friends.
  • Connect with a community, whether in person (such as neighbours) or online (such as a community Facebook group)
  • Tell yourself it’s understandable to feel the way you do
  • Talk about your worries, perhaps telling the other person that it’s more about being heard than seeking suggestions
  • Practice self-care – whatever that means to you (a massage, a long bath, offloading the kids for a few hours)
  • Don’t feel you always need to be on top of things at work and home
  • If needed, talk to your boss about task prioritisation, delegation, or accessing the Employee Assistance Programme.
  • Plan something fun like a holiday or evening out
  • Congratulate yourself for getting through what’s already happened – and remind yourself the future may hold some wonderful things.

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