The term “burnout” has been thrown around like a Sherrin football the past eighteen months, as concerns about the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to escalate.
Through this period, there has been a strong focus on essential healthcare workers and how heavy workloads, combined with other peripheral elements of the pandemic, have been significantly influencing their mental health. While this attention is warranted, there has been minimal space left for essential non-healthcare workers facing the same mental vulnerability.
Burnout was previously defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a problem related to life management. However, they subsequently revised the term in 2019 to be a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. It is now to be considered purely an “occupational phenomenon, [that] should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life”.
The typical symptoms of burnout include exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and a reduction in job performance.
Essential non-healthcare workers, such as supermarket staff, have been a saving grace to many Australian households for helping to keep food on the table during the pandemic. Given they have been on the frontlines of tension, are these often unheralded workers suffering from burnout?
After extraordinary scenes of panic-buying were spurred by lockdown announcements, supermarket customer service supervisor, Francesca Distefano, was left feeling alarmed and fatigued.
“At the beginning, it was like the start of an apocalypse movie,” she tells upstart.
“People were lining up for half an hour before we opened at 6am. People were spending upwards of $600 in single shops. Shelves were emptied daily for weeks at a time. We were all in constant panic mode, every second of every shift at the start.”
Frustrated with the public’s responses to government mandates and the lack of recognition afforded to essential non-health-care workers, Distefano describes feeling unseen and increasingly pessimistic.
“It feels like people don’t even regard us as essential workers,” she says.
“We’ve had people abuse us for asking them to wear masks. Two of our managers have been spat at. And very rarely do customers abide by social distancing rules in relation to staff. It’s both tiring and demoralising.”
These experiences are not just limited to Distefano’s workplace, with videos of patrons abusing retail staff appearing all over social media. Melbourne-based psychologist, Caroline Anderson, says feelings of fear and vulnerability have been a common response in customer service workers during this time.
“Healthcare workers are under a great deal of strain, of course. The difference is that they are trained and have a wealth of knowledge and experience in dealing with something like this,” she tells upstart.
“However, non-healthcare but essential industries can often feel quite at risk and fearful of being put into vulnerable situations, where they don’t have the training or support that a hospital system would.”
While essential non-healthcare workers are already more likely to contract COVID-19 at their place of work, Anderson also highlights extended public interaction as another contributor to burnout. According to Anderson, prolonged and repetitive social interactions with strangers can contribute to feelings of exhaustion and mental fatigue.
“Non-healthcare essential workers are often in the firing line for the public’s frustration. These are the people that have to remind the public about wearing a mask and to abide by the rules, and to check in with their QR codes,” she says.
Francesca Distefano has worked as a casual customer service supervisor in an eastern suburbs’ supermarket for six years. She says feelings of burnout are only increasing as the pandemic and lockdowns endure.
“At the start, I wasn’t particularly scared to go to work because if I let myself worry about the risks, I probably wouldn’t have been able to get out of bed, she says.
“Now I’ve noticed I’m pretty emotionally wrecked, and a lot of my co-workers are too. We joke about how becoming a tier-one site wouldn’t be so bad because then at least we’d get two weeks [of paid leave].”
With increased knowledge of how quickly the COVID-19 virus can spread and mounting lists of exposure sites, Distefano feels vulnerable daily. She worries she could spread the disease through community transmission.
“A year on, I’ve noticed my anxiety has definitely gotten worse. I do get extremely anxious because being an essential worker, I feel an enormous amount of responsibility. [Like] what if I get COVID-19 and give it to the customers I serve? Or my housemates? Or my family?” she says.
Vulnerability among staff increased when frontline supermarket workers were among several classifications of essential workers who did not qualify for priority access to COVID-19 vaccines.
“At the beginning, it was all adrenaline and a bit of survivor’s guilt when I was able to work and a lot of my friends [couldn’t] … but now, I have worked for nearly two years in a pandemic with [only the protection of] a thin piece of plastic and a fabric mask,” says Distefano.
Psychologist Caroline Anderson also notes that a battle may exist between feeling grateful to still be able to work through a pandemic and wishing to work from home. Feelings of shame about this is more often swept under the rug than included in the mental health conversation.
“Many people are very thankful that they are still able to work, and often they are earning more because they are more in demand. But there is an element of jealousy that they aren’t able to work from home,” she says.
“It’s almost a bit taboo because they should be thankful that they’ve still got a job and they’re still working. But sometimes, some people would like to be locked down and working from home, but they can’t be.”
While many people across the industry are showing signs of lockdown fatigue, Distefano can see the silver lining in working onsite through the current restrictions. However, she does not feel that the benefits of extra social interaction outweigh the public pressure placed on supermarket workers.
“[Working] is my main form of socialisation with the outside world and without it, I probably would’ve gone stir crazy,” she says.
“But hearing people rant and complain about having to wear their mask, or having to check-in, or about the government’s decision-making and how we’re either upholding or not correctly following those laws has become exhausting.”
While the Australian government has made mental health services available for all Australians under Medicare, for Distefano, a significant factor contributing to her burnout is the lack of workplace support in place.
“If I was to access government support, then I could get my ten bulk-billed sessions on Zoom, but otherwise, the workplace has offered zero support,” she says.
“We got a fruit platter after the first major panic buying rush at the very beginning of the lockdown period, but since then, nothing.”
Psychologist Caroline Anderson says people must have multiple methods to navigate workplace stress and overcome burnout, and that it’s important that we “balance our stress responses… through cultivating a variety of coping strategies, [combining] therapy and mindfulness practices”.
“There isn’t just one coping strategy that we need in life, we need multiple. Lockdown has given us time to explore those – to really look at how can we nurture ourselves, and practise self-compassion and self-care,” she says.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with their mental health, you can find help at:
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636
Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
Mensline Australia: 1300 78 9978
Article: Gemma Scerri is a Masters of Communications student with an undergraduate degree in International Relations. You can follow her on Twitter @gemmascerri.