A Year of COVID Anxiety Has Left Many Israeli Workers on Edge

Working from home at a time of great uncertainty and without the usual psychological supports caused burnout to grow

Netanel Gamss
Yarden Ben-Gal Hirshorn
Illustration: Father trying working from home with his board son playing on the background.
Illustration: Father trying working from home with his board son playing on the background.Credit: David Pereiras / Shutterstock.co
Netanel Gamss
Yarden Ben-Gal Hirshorn

“Without a doubt, the coronavirus year has worn me down more than any other year,” Chani (not her real name), a 38-year-old who works in the health care system, said. “There was a point when I thought about leaving my job. I’ve thought about doing it so often in the last year,” she added.

“We couldn’t take time off because we were essential workers. I had no childcare – my kids are too young to be left alone and I simply felt alone in coping. The pressure we felt at work was insane, we had to do a lot of overtime. The kids are at home and you’re getting phone calls all day and working under pressure, it kills you. It’s tense and it’s really not good for you. I’m a totally calm person, but the coronavirus changed me in that respect.” That’s how Chani describes her work over the last year.

The kind of burnout Chani feels didn’t suddenly arise with COVID-19. In 2019, the World Health Organization included burnout in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases – as an occupational phenomenon, not a medical condition. It is described as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

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A University of California study from September estimated that U.S. employers spend $190 billion a year on health-related expenses that can be traced to burnout. The total annual cost to the economy exceeds $500 billion, and 550 million workdays are lost, according to a report by the American Psychological Association cited in the Harvard Business Review.

In Israel, the Geocartography Institute found, in a poll it conducted for Magalim, the Foundation for the Aid of Exhausted Professionals, a year before the pandemic began, that 41% of Israelis suffered work burnout. Some 27% said they were unhappy with their profession and 70.4% said they’d be happy to retrain in order to switch vocations. The highest burnout rate (50%) was in factory workers, followed by technicians and electricians (40%). One-third of educators reported they were suffering burnout. People with only a high school diploma were more likely to say they had burnout than college graduates, at 50% and 37%, respectively.

“As workers, we’re exposed to our environment, both employment-related and external, that affects our physical and emotional situation,” said Prof. Sharon Toker of Tel Aviv University’s Coller School of Management, who studies these issues. “The higher the price a worker pays for these environmental conditions, like the ability to repay a mortgage, worries about family or marriage or threat to health, the more likely they are to react with stress.”

The pandemic has exacerbated the problem, she said. The coronavirus has taken all these pressures and added new ones, having to with uncertainty: “the inability to plan for the future, not knowing how your job will evolve in the future or whether you’ll have a job at all,” Toker said.

Prof. Sharon TokerCredit: Yael Savirski

“All this uncertainty requires a lot of cognitive investment because the brain is forced to create all kinds of scenarios: What will happen to me if there’s another lockdown or if my child is exposed in kindergarten to someone who’s sick. That can affect a worker’s health, of course,” Toker added.

Beyond recognition

Katya Levitski, who works at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov Hospital), says the pandemic changed her work beyond recognition. She processes coronavirus tests. “Before, I worked shifts, arriving at 7 A.M. and leaving at 3 P.M.” During the height of the pandemic, sometimes she stayed until 10 P.M. and there were some seven-day weeks.

Her sense of mission helped her to cope with the stress, she said. “I felt I was part of a global undertaking, that I was making a personal contribution to handling the pandemic. I made a switch in my brain and related to it as a war.”

Levitski, who is married with two children, said she was also able to cope because her husband was put on unpaid leave. “He began working from home at the start of the crisis, but he opted for unpaid leave to take care of the children,” she said. “So that I could work so intensively, my husband was father and mother throughout the period. I didn’t take a vacation the entire year.”

Burnout due to the pandemic was not restricted to health care workers. In a survey last fall of 1,500 people in 46 countries by researchers with support from Harvard Business Review, 89% said their work life had worsened, 85% said their well-being had declined and 57% felt the pandemic had a “large effect on” or “completely dominated” their work. Of the respondents who said they struggled to manage their workload, 62% had experienced burnout “often” or “extremely often” in the previous three months.

“Burnout is actually a group of symptoms that have in common great exhaustion, physical exhaustion, like getting up in the morning tired, if you can get up at all, and a lack of energy during the day; cognitive exhaustion, like memory problems, lack of concentration and a tendency to more conservative and less creative thinking; and interpersonal exhaustion,” said Toker.

In the latter case, she said, a person who is tired, distracted and preoccupied can’t invest time and energy in others. “You can see it in physical distancing, like closing the door of your office or, in the case of Zoom meetings, shutting off the camera and signing off, also in unwillingness to listen to others’ problems. It doesn’t come from ill intent, it’s a defense mechanism by which you distance yourself from things that disturb you.”

Rotem (not her real name), a researcher at an Israeli university with three young children, describes her own interpersonal exhaustion and its effects.

“The first and second lockdowns were okay, but by the third we felt the situation was impossible,” she said. “My partner is a pharmacist and I work from home. Staying at home with three young children is hard. You spend a lot of energy during the day trying to create a framework for them. And while you’re doing that, you’re expected to do your job. I often found myself wanting to work but unable. By the evening I couldn’t focus, couldn’t work. I felt I was suffering mentally. I would get up in the middle of the night stressed. I tried to work on Shabbat, something I had never done.”

To reduce the pressure, she avoided the news “I simply decided to turn off the TV to cut myself off from the situation, so I wouldn’t have to think about the anxieties of the pandemic,” Rotem said.

She blames the government for some of the decline in emotional well-being. “Israel’s policy, in contrast to that of other countries, didn’t give priority to education. It created a situation in which so long as we had a pulse, our health was fine. That was a big mistake. They should have acknowledged that the pandemic severely harmed workers mentally and wore them down,” Rotem said.

No support system

Before the pandemic, workers could take some comfort in knowing that whatever burnout they might feel would be eased by socializing at work, as well as company events and activities outside work, such as vacations. The pandemic put an end to that and left workers with nothing to help balance out the sources of burnout.

In response, the mental health organization Enosh is applying the principles of “safeguarding,” a term used to measure care taken to protect children, young people and vulnerable adults from abuse, harm and neglect. Vis-a-vis workers, Enosh is urging organizations to put the employee at the center and to create a safe environment of mutual trust by ensuring a safe social climate, open dialogue, the physical and mental health of employees, preventing harassment and abuse at work, safeguarding workers’ rights and preventing discrimination.

People who are essential workers during a crisis, such as the pandemic, are exposed to huge pressures from burnout. Apart from the psychological impact, Enosh cites medical studies claiming that 65% to 70% of instances of physical illness result from stress and burnout.

Carmit SelaCredit: no credit

“Organizations need to understand that burnout could lead to chronic fatigue, illness, dissatisfaction, feelings of helplessness and a decline in motivation, which in turn harms the quality of work itself,” said Carmit Sela, a social worker who heads up Enosh’s safeguarding program. “Just like you learn first aid, you need to learn psychological first aid. When you give people the tools, you can significantly reduce psychological fallout.”

Enosh’s model for organizations starts with prevention – developing policies, a code of ethics and procedures, access to information and training for employees and managers. The next stage calls for tools for identifying employees experiencing problems by making managers aware of symptoms, intervention by training professionals and developing tools for measuring success.

Dr. Hilla Hadas, Enosh’s director, said employers had to do more than offer perks such as gyms and healthy food in the company cafeteria. “You need to create an environment where people feel safe, with a sense of purpose and connection with the organization, and organization cohesion,” she explained.

“If a worker doesn’t feel protected, all the perks in the world won’t help. Workers need to feel that their workplace cares about them more deeply, then their output rises wonderfully. Managers have to understand this and that it requires investment. Now, with the coronavirus, we understand that workers need even more. The more a worker feels protected, the more dedicated they will feel, they will spend more time on the job and give more to the organization,” Hadas said.

Ronit Ronen-Karpol, director of human resources at Western Digital Israel, which employs 1,200 people, said the sudden emergence of the pandemic came as a shock to many.

“Employees encountered an unfamiliar situation. They had to start working from home while trying to take care of kids, taking part in a quarterly meeting over Zoom, for example. Multitasking made workers realize the need to manage themselves differently. Some employees could do it, others had a harder time,” she said.

Her company, Ronen-Karpol said, had to think several steps ahead in order to help employees cope with the new challenges. “We gave them more flexibility and we now use a hybrid model: Employees can choose whether to come to the office or not when possible. We encourage them to come so they don’t feel completely disconnected and don’t lose the social connection, even if it’s just half a day a week,” Ronen-Karpol said.

As for mental health, she said Western Digital, the world’s biggest maker of hard disks, has for the past decade made therapy available to staff at no charge. Demand for help soared during the pandemic, she added.

The company was concerned about the hit to worker productivity during the pandemic, but in the end there was no significant decline globally, mainly because Western Digital operates in countries such as China and Singapore that have experience coping with pandemics, Ronen-Karpol said.

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