Like many of us, the writer Susan Orlean is having a hard time concentrating these days. “Good morning to everyone,” she tweeted recently, “but especially to the sentence I just rewrote for the tenth time.”
“I feel like I’m in quicksand,” she explained by phone from California, where she has been under quasi-house arrest for the last year. “I’m just so exhausted all the time. I’m doing so much less than I normally do — I’m not traveling, I’m not entertaining, I’m just sitting in front of my computer — but I am accomplishing way less. It’s like a whole new math. I have more time and fewer obligations, yet I’m getting so much less done.”
Call it a late-pandemic crisis of productivity, of will, of enthusiasm, of purpose. Call it a bout of existential work-related ennui provoked partly by the realization that sitting in the same chair in the same room staring at the same computer for 12 straight months (and counting!) has left many of us feeling like burned-out husks, dimwitted approximations of our once-productive selves.
What time is it? What day is it? What did we do in October? Why are we standing in front of the refrigerator staring at an old clove of garlic? Just recently I myself spent half an hour struggling to retrieve a word from the faulty memory system that has replaced my prepandemic brain. (“Institution.” That was the word.) Sometimes, when I try to write a simple email, I feel I’m just pushing disjointed words around, like peas on a plate, hoping they will eventually coalesce into sentences. Am I excited about my daily work in this month of April, 2021? I would have to say that I am not.
“Malaise, burnout, depression and stress — all of those are up considerably,” said Todd Katz, executive vice president and head of group benefits at MetLife. The company’s most recent Employee Benefit Trends Study, conducted in December and January, found that workers across the board felt markedly worse than they did last April.
The study was based in part on interviews with 2,651 employees. In total, 34 percent of respondents reported feeling burned out, up from 27 percent last April. Twenty-two percent said they were depressed, up from 17 percent last April, and 37 percent said they felt stressed, up from 34 percent.
“People are saying they’re less productive, less engaged, that they don’t feel as successful,” Mr. Katz said.
No kidding. In this very bad year, of course, there are gradations of loss: loss of homes, of health, of income; the deaths of family members and other loved ones; the absence of security. In the most recent Household Pulse Survey, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 37 percent of those surveyed reported feeling anxious or depressed (in 2019, the figure was 11 percent). In the scheme of things, people who have jobs are lucky. But that doesn’t mean work itself is easy, or fun.
“I feel fried,” said Erin H., a social media and event coordinator at a Midwestern university, whose work once inspired and excited her but currently seems like an unpleasant cocktail of boredom, dread and exhaustion. (She asked that her last name not be used so as not to upset her employers.) Things take longer to get done, she said, in part because she doesn’t want to do them.
None of that is surprising, said Margaret Wehrenberg, an expert on anxiety and the author of the book “Pandemic Anxiety: Fear, Stress, and Loss in Traumatic Times.” A year of uncertainty, of being whipsawed between anxiety and depression, of seeing expert predictions wither away and goal posts shift, has left many people feeling that they are existing in a kind of fog, the world shaded in gray.
“When people are under a long period of chronic, unpredictable stress, they develop behavioral anhedonia,” Dr. Wehrenberg said, meaning the loss of the ability to take pleasure in their activities. “And so they get lethargic, and they show a lack of interest — and obviously that plays a huge role in productivity.”
Nearly 700 people responded to The Times’s questions, and the picture they painted was of a work force at its collective wits’ end. We heard from a clergyperson, a pastry chef, an I.C.U. nurse, a probation officer, a fast-food worker. Budget analysts, librarians, principals, college students holed up in childhood bedrooms, project managers, interns, real estate agents — their mood was strikingly similar, though their circumstances were different. As one respondent said, no matter how many lists she makes, “I find myself falling back into deep pajamaville.”
“I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who cannot say that the last year hasn’t been the hardest they’ve ever had,” Elizabeth Abend, 41, said in an interview. As head of human resources at a small chain of boutique fitness studios, Ms. Abend, who lives in Manhattan, has faced a cascade of challenges: having to tell casual employees there was no work; navigating uncertainty over when, and how, to reopen; pivoting to new digital services. And there has been loneliness, the death of her beloved dog, her own severe bout with Covid-19 last spring and the need, she said, “to be an adult human and pay bills and eat meals and all of that amid the exhaustion of having our entire world turned on its head.”
Natasha Rajah, a professor of psychiatry at McGill University who specializes in memory and the brain, said the longevity of the pandemic — endless monotony laced with acute anxiety — had contributed to a sense that time was moving differently, as if this past year were a long, hazy, exhausting experience lasting forever and no time at all. The stress and tedium, she said, have dulled our ability to form meaningful new memories.
“There’s definitely a change in how people are reporting memories and cognitive experiences,” Professor Rajah said. “They have fewer rich details about their personal memories, and more negative content to their memories.” This means, she said, that people may be having a harder time forming working memories and paying attention, with “a reduced ability to hold things in their minds, manipulate thoughts and plan for the future.”
Add to that a general loneliness, social isolation, anxiety and depression, she said, and it is not surprising that they are having trouble focusing on their work.
“Honestly, weirdly, sometimes when I’m writing I just stop and stare at the wall,” said Valerie M., a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology in Michigan who asked that her full name not be used because she did not want her employers to hear how her workdays are going. “The staring at the wall contributes to the time warp. I’m like, ‘I spent the whole day, and I really didn’t do anything.’ Not that I did anything fun, either. It’s like, ‘Wow, I don’t even know what I did.’”
Prolonged stress will do that to you, said Mike Yassa, professor of neuroscience and the director of the UCI Brain Initiative at the University of California, Irvine. “Stress is OK in small amounts, but when it extends over time it’s very dangerous,” he said. “It disrupts our cycles of sleep and our regular routines in things like exercise and physical activity — all these things make it very difficult for the body to be resilient.”
Resilience does seem in short supply, especially as basic things like exercising, getting dressed and making an effort to appear enthusiastic on Zoom have fallen by the wayside.
“My brain simply cannot focus long enough to form full sentences,” the grant director for a nonprofit organization wrote in response to The Times’s questions. A college student said: “I’m so burnt out that even this form is way, way too long.”
On our questionnaire, we asked how people have tried to combat their feelings of malaise. Some are meditating, turning to “alcohol or edibles,” walking, making the bed, re-engaging with a spiritual practice. (“I’ve come to rely very much on the story of the Exodus,” a clergyperson wrote.)
But in general, your guess for how to make this strange period easier is as good as anyone’s. “I don’t know,” one person wrote. “If you find out, tell me.”
Sarah Lyall is a writer at large, working for a variety of desks at The New York Times. Previously she was a correspondent in the London bureau, and a reporter for the Culture and Metro Desks. @sarahlyall