In times of crisis, our survival instincts kick in, and the human body responds by introducing higher levels of cortisol and adrenaline. These are the hormones that fuel our fight-or-flight responses, giving us an extra burst of energy to deal with the situation at hand. But what happens when the crisis is prolonged indefinitely? As it turns out, experiencing heightened levels of cortisol and adrenaline for an extended period of time can wreak havoc on our physical and mental well-being1, resulting in a phenomenon known as crisis fatigue. In the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it has also become something that is increasingly common.
Much like crisis fatigue, pandemic fatigue refers to a mental state in which prolonged, heightened states of fear and caution results in a form of burnout. Although it is not officially recognised as a mental health condition, its effects can nevertheless be just as widespread and debilitating. A recent study, for instance, found that 44% of local survey participants were tired of following the necessary health measures2. Other than feeling drained from the constant SafeEntry check-ins, physical gathering limitations, and travel restrictions, they also indicated a persistent sense of uncertainty that they face on a daily basis. But what exactly contributes to pandemic fatigue?
Causes of pandemic fatigue
When the circuit breaker was first implemented in April this year, it changed our everyday lives drastically. The majority of us were left cooped up at home, unable to physically socialise with others outside our household or to head out for work or leisure. Further complicating the matter was that there was little to no transition period before the circuit breaker kicked in. Despite this, most of us were accepting of the restrictions in hopes that they will be short-term measures to deal with the virus.
However, when the circuit breaker was extended, and subsequent announcements about phases one and two were made, it became understandably difficult for most to keep up. The heavy restrictions imposed by the circuit breaker, coupled with the constant worries about the economy and the health of loved ones has inevitably taken a toll on our mental health. As a result, many of us are demoralised and burnt out by the uncertainty surrounding the entire situation.
While pandemic fatigue affects everyone, some segments of the population remain more vulnerable than others. For instance, front-line workers and caregivers that face a lot of additional responsibility and stress during the pandemic are likely to be more burnt out than others. Seniors and others who live alone are also more likely to feel loneliness as they may have no one to even interact with in their own household. Finally, those who are already dealing with mental health struggles like depression and anxiety are also more susceptible to pandemic fatigue.
Effects of pandemic fatigue
There are many negative effects that can stem from pandemic fatigue. These generally include physical maladies and declining mental health. Beyond these individual effects, pandemic fatigue could also lead to desensitisation and complacency that could potentially halt the progress that has been made containing the pandemic.
Even though the circuit breaker is over, virtual interactions, especially for work and school, is still the norm. Having so many virtual interactions has resulted in a similar phenomenon known as “Zoom fatigue” which feeds into pandemic fatigue. Named after the video conferencing platform, Zoom fatigue refers to the exhaustion that comes with the overuse of online communications. This is because a lot more energy is required to pay attention to non-verbal communication, which is harder to pick up over video conferencing3. Other physical ailments that could result from pandemic fatigue include headaches, an inability to focus, digestive issues, insomnia and a weakened immune system - all of which ultimately affects a person’s overall daily functioning4. In the long-term, it could also result in the worsening of chronic health conditions.
Beyond the physical effects that pandemic fatigue has on the human body, many are also concerned about the toll that the pandemic has had on mental and emotional health. For one, the many restrictions and lack of social interactions could result in the worsening of our mental health, especially for those of us with conditions such as depression and anxiety. Other signs of pandemic fatigue include having fewer interactions; feeling restless, sad, helpless, unmotivated and frustrated; being irritable and sensitive, and having low mood and energy.
Further exacerbating the already stressful period are the COVID-19 news and advisories that broadcasted daily. While they are necessary to keep the public updated and vigilant, the constant barrage of communications can also have opposite effects. For one, excessive media exposure can emotionally desensitise us, diminish initial feelings of anxiety and caution, and even lead to complacency5. Consequently, we may begin to engage in rule-breaking behaviours that were initially inhibited by the anxiety responses, such as not adhering to safe distancing rules or washing our hands as regularly as we did before. To escape the rules and discomfort caused by COVID-19 regulations, some of us may choose not to leave the house at all. This aids the development of unhealthy habits, such as lower levels of physical activities as well as greater risks of mental exhaustion from being isolated.
Tackling pandemic fatigue
As a relatively new phenomenon, it is all the more important to raise awareness about the causes and impacts of pandemic fatigue. We tend to write-off occurrences that we do not know about, and we cannot make changes without first recognising what is going on within us. In unprecedented times like these, it becomes even easier for us to miss potential warning signs and normalise poor mental health, such as feeling less positive, less connected, as well as being less engaged and productive. So what can we do to fight against this state of mind?
A good start to any effective self-care and support system is to work on being more resilient. Resilience refers to our ability to adapt in the face of adversity, as well as how well we can recover from unexpected changes. One of the easiest ways to work on this is to practise being aware of our personal mental health. For instance, regularly checking in with ourselves can give us the time we need to make sense of our feelings and provide us with opportunities to find effective ways of coping with them.
In the workplace, the best way to support this is to encourage and allow for mindful breaks. It is also vital to let employees know that they have access to resources and health professionals if they experience persistent anxiety, hopelessness or sadness. Consider encouraging your team to get creative with their coping mechanisms as a part of their self-management and self-care skills. As many of the ways that we use to recharge have been impacted by pandemic restrictions, being creative and open to new ideas and experiences can help us to cope in the interim. Some examples can include planning for staycations, organising viewing parties of shows filmed in international locations, as well as making future travel plans.
As employers, doing our part to provide healthy, positive content can also go a long way. The phrase ‘you are what you eat’ holds true for more than just what we put in our bodies. What we feed our mind with will also determine what our mind puts out. So when we find ourselves overwhelmed with negative thoughts, it is crucial to trace them back to the content that we are consuming so that we can make some positive changes. To help out, try encouraging your employees to switch up some of their media intakes by creating communication channels for more diverse and light-hearted content.
At the end of the day, we are all frustrated as there are many things that are currently beyond our control. This can lead to frustrations and criticisms towards ourselves and others that may further worsen our mood. When this happens, showing kindness to yourself or others can make a big difference in improving our outlook, as research has shown that empathy and compassion can help us feel happier as well as boost our immune system and energy levels6.
The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly been a massive challenge for the world to manage, though most of us have managed to cope with the situation admirably. Understandably, the weariness has begun to set in after the prolonged months of circuit breaker measures. This is why it is more important than ever for us to be proactive and intentional about connecting with our employees. We are not alone in our struggles, which is why making an effort to stay in touch and connect with our fellow co-workers can go a long way in encouraging and supporting each other. The good news is that even though the effects of the pandemic will not disappear any time soon, it affords us time and opportunity to build up our resilience. With this, we can grow in our ability to bounce back stronger than ever after a crisis, and that is undoubtedly an invaluable trait for us to have as we seek to build a better future.
1. Perna, M. (2020). Building Resilience When You’re Pandemic-Fatigued. Forbes.
2. Goh, T. (2020). 44% of people in Singapore tired of rules to limit Covid-19 spread: Survey. The Straits Times.
3. Jiang, M. (2020). The reason Zoom calls drain your energy. BBC.
4. Kaur, A. (2020). Battling pandemic fatigue: Some feel burned out as Covid-19 outbreak drags on with no end in sight. The Straits Times.
5. Kaur, A. (2020). Battling pandemic fatigue: Some feel burned out as Covid-19 outbreak drags on with no end in sight. The Straits Times.
6. Coyle, D. (2017). How Being Happy Makes You Healthier. Healthline.