Mona Eshaiker was two years into a high-profile job when she realized something wasn’t working. It was 2020, and Eshaiker, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, was working at a digital mental health startup. Her work days were gruelling, and as one of the only queer people and people of color in the room, she didn’t feel she was able to be her true self. She was constantly stressed out, exhausted, and felt physically ill.
Something had to change. “It was so clear: life is too short. This is not how I want to spend my days,” she thought. So Eshaiker quit her job and set up her own practice as a therapist and burnout coach, to support clients who similarly felt burnt out in the workplace. “I got the help and now I’m here to help others.”
Eshaiker’s expertise is in higher demand than ever. As COVID-19 continues to upend how people around the world live, work, and socialize, with no quick end in sight, many of us are left wondering how to pursue our goals when everything feels up in the air.
In other words: How can we make long-term plans in a crisis?
How Burnout Blurs Our View of the Future
For most Americans, something isn’t working. According to one survey from mid-2020, 42% of surveyed American workers said their stress levels were high or very high; 47% of unemployed people said the same thing. This is part of a general trend, as over the past few decades most people have been working longer hours, with stagnating wages.
During the pandemic, workers are averaging 48 minutes more work per day as compared to pre-pandemic. That strain, compared with the general stress of this era, means that in the above study, a whopping 75% of respondents reported experiencing burnout at work, with 40% of people saying they’re specifically experiencing burnout during the pandemic.
Barriers between work and play have almost completely disappeared for those working from home, leading to an expectation of higher productivity. Yet, for those responsible for caring for children, elderly people, or sick relatives — work that disproportionately falls on women — continue to buckle under unrealistic standards. Those who work outside the home face increased risk of infection. Meanwhile, jobs are scarce and layoffs alarmingly common.
According to Eshaiker, this instability mimics the heightened stress under which marginalized people have always had to work. Isolation has made this stress particularly acute for LGBTQ people and people of color. In normal times, said Eshaiker, “Being someone who is part of the LGBTQ community, I can go to work and there’s stress there, but after work I can go be part of my community and experience a sense of safety,” she said. Now, for many of us, those safety nets are gone.
With so much instability, it can be difficult to plan for the future and keep our eyes on the personal and professional goals that we most value. Yet, said Eshaiker, experiencing stress and burnout can also be our bodies’ way of telling us that something — in our personal lives, our work lives, and our collective social lives — needs to change.
Tune in to What’s Not Working
“We know exactly what we want. We just get distracted by things externally.” Eshaiker often shares this advice with clients who feel unsure about their path. If you’re stressed out or worried about the future, Eshaiker advises treating it as a sign that something in your life is out of alignment. This is an invitation to offer yourself the care you need and discover your inner voice.
First, tune into your body to understand what’s not working. When we experience stress, we may feel anxious, ruminate, have headaches and stomachaches, and have difficulty sleeping. When occasional stress turns to chronic stress, these physical feelings intensify. “Chronic stress is when those headaches start turning to migraines, stomachache turns to iBS, and anxiety turns to panic,” Eshaiker said. The symptoms of burnout can even be more severe, and may include suicidal ideation.
We also may feel sadness for the experiences — travel, career opportunities, family get-togethers — that we’re forced to miss because of the pandemic. It can feel like the path we charted for ourselves is blocked off. While this can be uncomfortable and scary, these negative feelings are clues to what we really want and need. “Mourn. Feel your feelings,” she said. “That’s wonderful. That means you’re inspecting something really important in your life.”
This time can provide a clue to what wasn’t working in your life more broadly. Whereas before it may have been easier to distract ourselves by going out, said Eshaiker, now “We’re forced in a way to confront our own thoughts, to confront the things we lost.”
When you sit with this pain, you can also identify which goals you want to hold onto, albeit perhaps in a new form, and which aren’t important to you anymore. “If you sit quietly, I wonder if you find that your goals have changed. What else is in there?”
Take Stock of Your Strengths
All of us have the tools for resilience inside ourselves and in our relationships with other people. Eshaiker reminds us that marginalized communities have always managed to survive and thrive despite systemic barriers like job insecurity and financial instability.
If you’ve gone through adversity before, take stock of what helped you get through it. Did you practice great self-care? Did you connect with a community group or find a professional mentor? Did you seek refuge in faith?
Eshaiker also suggests identifying the internalized negative beliefs that are holding you back. Especially when you are part of an underrepresented group, the lack of role models can make it difficult to imagine yourself reaching certain goals and thriving. “But you can,” said Eshaiker. Women, LBTQ people, and people of color are particularly taught to believe that we must compete with each other in order to access scarce resources.
While this mindset makes sense considering the discrimination we experience, it’s not a true reflection of our power. “The scarcity mentality is so insidious, you start self-policing yourself and you start limiting yourself,” said Eshaiker. Instead of focusing on what we lack, we can approach periods of transition by emphasizing how much we have when we pool our strengths. “It’s an abundant world,” Eshaiker said.
One practical way to build positive belief in yourself is to find a role model, mentor, or support group in your field of interest. Reach out to professionals online, or join a virtual community. Increased community support is one of the rare good things to come out of the pandemic.
Different Isn’t Worse
Once you’ve gotten in tune with what isn’t working in your life, identified what you do want, and taken stock of the tools you have to achieve these goals, you can begin planning for a new future. This might include changing a business plan to adopt to pandemic conditions, moving closer to family to have a child, or leaving a relationship that isn’t healthy for you.
The uncertainty about the future won’t necessarily fade, and the grief may linger for a long time. All of that is okay. Maintaining a hopeful belief in yourself is a daily practice. “You have to build it into your daily routine,” said Eshaiker.
In this new world, our goals and plans may be different, but different doesn’t necessarily mean worse. Once we mourn the loss of how we thought our lives would be, we can begin to see and plan for them as they are — and we can embrace the opportunity for new and better futures.