Love it or hate it, phrases like “quarenteam” and “Zoom bombing” became the go-to tools for expressing our pandemic frustrations. As we slowly return to normal and Zoom calls are less a part of our daily lives, some of these terms feel like relics from a lost age. But there’s one that still resonates—”burnout.”

Defined as a state of perpetual exhaustion, burnout can affect anyone. Pre-COVID, the term was mainly used in the context of work—it was something that happened to people with back-to-back jobs, or lawyers working 80-hour weeks.

But what was once a corporate phenomenon is now an everyday affliction. Faced with changing demands at work and at home, nearly all of us have felt (or still feel) pushed to our limits—especially parents.

According to Stress In America, a 2020 study by the American Psychological Association, 62 percent of parents with a child learning remotely at home said their level of stress has increased since before the pandemic.

Additionally, both mothers (44 percent) and fathers (30 percent) with a child learning remotely at home said their mental health had worsened. Unfortunately, only 32 percent of parents surveyed sought professional treatment.

COVID-related disruptions meant that when the pandemic began, parents had to adjust to a changing world without the supports we’d come to depend on—from buses that took our kids to school, to regular child care, to impromptu visits to Grandma’s house so we could grocery shop on our own. Yet parents still felt the pressure to do it all.

Even as the pandemic subsides, parents still face more responsibilities than ever. There are more ways to “get it wrong.” And the stakes have never been higher. The result of all this unaddressed stress isn’t just physical exhaustion—it’s a nagging feeling of falling forever behind.

We tell ourselves that if only we pushed a little harder, maybe things would be different. But we forget that we’re human. We don’t have unlimited time or attention to give. And no matter how much we try, we can never be the perfect parent, coworker or spouse—and that’s perfectly OK.

The solution for burnout has nothing to do with becoming more efficient, less distracted or somehow better at what you do. (And chances are you’re doing a much better job than you’re giving yourself credit for.) Instead, it’s all about slowing down, recognizing that you can only do so much, and giving yourself permission to put your well-being first.

Tackle Burnout Head On

The first step to combating burnout is knowing when it happens. These symptoms can be signs of burnout:

  • Mental
    • Difficulty concentrating or performing a familiar task; Brain fog; Feeling stuck or shut down, as if your mind quit working
  • Physical
    • Low energy and exhaustion; Headaches; Stomach aches; Weight loss or weight gain; Sleeping more or less than usual
  • Emotional
    • Detachment; Negative feelings about a task you once enjoyed, such as work or parenting; Feelings of inadequacy; Shame or humiliation; Depression or despair; Anxiety

If you’re feeling burned out, it’s important to stop and take a step back. If you’re stressed about a never-ending to-do list, take a moment to write down your responsibilities and circle the ones that matter most. For every un-circled task on your list, ask yourself if you can delegate it to someone else (say a kid who’d been begging for an allowance) or give yourself more time to complete it.

While there will always be things that can’t wait (the school bus, for instance), most things can. If you’ve had a busy week, it’s OK to watch a funny show at the end of the night instead of doing another load of laundry. (Trust us—it will still be there in the morning.)

Pay Yourself First

When people struggle to save money, financial advisors often give the advice to “pay yourself first.” This means that instead of saving what’s left in your account after you’ve paid for all your monthly expenses, when your paycheck arrives, you immediately deposit a set amount of money into your savings account, prioritizing your savings and your future.

Advisors know that sudden expenses and temptations will always arise, making it all too easy to “save some other time.” This rings true when it comes to time management as well, and parents can take a lesson from financial advisors on how to give ourselves more me-time.

Think of setting aside time just for you (paying yourself first) as an investment in your long-term well-being. Just like surprise expenses will always pop up, on a given day, there will always be multiple things competing for your attention. By scheduling little breaks for yourself where and when you can (think 15-30 minutes each), you give yourself time to reset.

For a lot of parents, blocking off an hour every day for anything can seem impossible. But blocking off little chunks of time is almost always doable. (The world won’t end if you wait 15 minutes to respond to that email, promise.) Spend these moments walking, listening to relaxing music, playing with a pet or caring for yourself. Pick an activity you enjoy and minimize distractions as best you can.

Get Help When You Need It

When burnout affects your life—your work, relationships and well-being—professional treatment can help. Remember that burnout is the result of too many demands. Expecting yourself to “snap out of it” by sheer will alone will only add to your stress. Cut yourself some slack and reach out to a mental health professional.

If you live in East Central Iowa (that includes Bremer, Benton, Buchanan, Delaware, Dubuque, Iowa, Johnson, Jones and Linn counties), you may qualify for free mental health wellness coaching sessions. These are available for anyone whose wellbeing has suffered as a result of the pandemic—including parents. Visit brainhealthtips.org to learn more.