While everyone has adjusted to life in the era of Covid-19, there’s another contagion piggybacking on the pandemic…burnout. You’ve probably noticed it in your workplace and you’re not alone. The added stress of kids going back to school (or not?), working from home (possibly with a spouse), and trying to remember to wear your mask everywhere despite perhaps peer pressure has taken a toll on the mental state of everyone.

Unfortunately, you don’t have to be a parent or working from home to feel the impacts of these situations because burnout is contagious. Yes, you can catch burnout from your coworkers. A study on teacher burnout was able to backup this hypothesis a few years back. It seems the negative attitudes of senior teachers were a major factor in new teachers getting burnout in their first 4 years at any given school.

But why is it so contagious? Maybe we should *yawn* take a step back. You probably have witnessed it before. Someone yawns and that triggers someone else to yawn. That’s the work of our mirror neurons! And a study in Switzerland was able to show that there is a connection between higher cognitive empathic function and this part of our brain.

Even when we’re not physically mimicking what we see, these mirror neurons are at work. It’s one of the ways we’re able to learn, empathize, and connect with others – even when the emotions we’re sharing are negative.

Now let me give you an example. You’re starting the workday and you’re feeling great. You check your email and see at the top of the pile is an email from a coworker. It looks out-of-the-ordinary so you click it and check it out. It’s filled with snark, passive aggressive comments, and a demand for your time and attention.

If you’re able to approach this with a level head, you might try calling them to check in and see if everything is ok. You may ask a few questions and spend the rest of the call just listening to their problems, however…if you’re burnt out you’re going to respond a little different. Perhaps you fire back an email filled with snark and a no. Maybe even CC someone higher up to get their attention on the problem. This isn’t actually helpful for anyone and now you’ve made a bad email into a renewable source for burnout.

Everyone pulled into the experience is going to walk away at minimum, annoyed. And then they have small interactions with other people and the chain reaction becomes…well…unstoppable. Or is it?

When a whole office is caught up in a negative feedback loop fueled by burnout, you have to stop. Not just one or two people taking a vacation and running away from the problem, you have to stop and signal to everyone that there is hope. After all, burnout is a crisis of hope.