Virtual burnout becoming more of a COVID issue

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Marie E. Matyjaszek

By nature, most humans want and need personal interaction with other individuals. Some might say that we have a herd mentality at our core, with a more refined ability to decide things for ourselves instead of following everyone else. The pandemic has significantly restricted our ability to be physically present with others, and alternative methods of interaction and communication have increased dramatically. 

With the exception of some courts that are holding hearings in person, most are utilizing an online virtual platform like Zoom. Many hearings are live streamed on You Tube channels as well.  In addition to conducting business virtually, parents may also have to assist their children with virtual school and appointments.  Burnout has always been an issue in the employment arena, and in 2019, the World Health Organization included it in a revision of the International Classification of Diseases, specifically listing it as an occupational phenomenon. It is defined as “…a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.  It is characterized by three dimensions:  feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.”

I have noticed increased frustration with the use of virtual meetings and hearings. The Internet connection is unstable, audio isn’t working, a party has to call in instead of using video, which means he or she can’t see the screen sharing. Going back and forth into breakout rooms, especially when swapping back between the main session and the rooms, can be tricky.  Everyone, including me, wants a big, blinking red button that screams “CLICK HERE!” to make transfers easy. When the technology becomes confusing or difficult, it raises tensions in the room, which can lead to breakdowns in productive communication. As the stress and frustration build, burnout can take over.

When hearings are held in person, there are few distractions. You are relatively isolated from the rest of your life when you are in a courtroom, minus what business you can conduct on your phone. Focus is improved, and it is easier to realize there is one task in front of you. You can give your full attention to that task, and I believe people are more mindful of others when they are physically present. It’s hard to effectively express emotions over a computer – somehow even the best attempts often fall short.

While meeting virtually is more convenient (who hasn’t enjoyed the decrease in traffic and gas costs), it can be taken less seriously. When you attend court in person, you have to get dressed in a professional manner, drive, pass through security, and sit in an imposing courtroom. There is a sense of decorum that a courtroom possesses, and people tend to respect that. Virtual courtrooms do not foster that same atmosphere. People literally appear undressed for hearings and lay in bed yawning throughout the proceeding. It’s a complete unknown as to what a viewer might see in the background during a call, and that can be on both sides. Children run in and out of the room and dogs incessantly bark at all the wrong times. These distractions don’t happen when court is held in person.

Sometimes everyone can laugh about the ridiculous things that occur. But after a while, many are simply “over it.” Jobs are hard enough, and a pandemic that changed how almost everything worked has been extremely stressful. We must adjust our routines to accommodate the hiccups that occur virtually. Taking breaks more frequently or making them 15 or 20 minutes instead of 10, allows participants the chance to take a walk outside or eat a snack without suffering from heartburn an hour later. Knowing when the distractions are too much and continuing a different day is sometimes necessary. It does no one any good to continuously stop and ask someone to repeat themselves because their connection is going in and out.

I think it’s most important to recognize that we are tired. We are all tired of the pandemic and the chaos that it brought to the world. It’s normal to feel this way and simply recognizing that when hearings become troublesome is helpful. Acknowledging virtual burnout can ease stress, diffuse anger, and open perspectives, drawing people back to the present task at hand. While we may be sitting on different sides of the table, we are all human.

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Marie Matyjaszek is an Attorney Referee at the Washtenaw County Friend of the Court; however, the views expressed in this column are her own. She can be reached by e-mailing her at matyjasz@hotmail.com.


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