Burned Out on Burnout: Stress in Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson—Apt. 2B

By Anna Michnowicz
Edited by Hallie Gordon/Director of Artistic Development, KCRep

In Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson, audience members have a front-row seat to witnessing the effect the pandemic has had on both these characters, both experiencing emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a sense of low personal accomplishment which has led to decreased effectiveness at their work.

This is better known as burnout.

At the beginning of the play, Watson has left her career in medicine as a surgeon having served in an E.R during the height of the pandemic, unable to cope with the overflow of patients and death, she feels broken and unable to help people anymore. This is a perfect example of several different stages of Burnout. She explains she’s exploring new hobbies again (“trying out creative writing”), a step forward on the path to recovering from burnout. In the play’s opening, Moriarty describes Watson as “lost,” and throughout, multiple characters voice signs that Watson is experiencing the Worn-Out subtype of burnout, noting her exhaustion and depression. Watson’s continued panic attacks are the biggest symptom of her burnout. Her job puts so much stress on her person that her body is conditioned to fainting at the sight of human anguish.

Meanwhile, Holmes is also experiencing burnout, although differently from Watson. Holmes could be an  Under-Challenged worker, desperate to seek cases to solve but ultimately arriving at the conclusion that there are no more “good” mysteries to challenge her skills of deduction. Holmes says herself, “I spent a year and a half, staring at the walls – purposeless. I re-emerge from the void – and find – the void yawns before me still! Crime has become so – quotidian. Law-breakers have no imagination anymore!” She adds, “My fire has burned out. I have lost all inspiration!”

Holmes also exhibits several other of the key characteristics of burnout, such as self-medication with marijuana and displeasure in hobbies that previously made her happy. Ultimately, Holmes and Watson both find support and camaraderie in one another — Holmes, in unraveling the mystery of Watson, and Watson, by joining Holmes for adventures.

The condition of being burned out has risen thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Previously, burnout was ascribed mostly to healthcare workers and care professionals, but the diagnosis is rapidly becoming more recognized in all citizens across the globe.

The 5 Stages of Burnout

American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger described the progression of burnout in five stages:

1. The Honeymoon Phase

At this stage, there are no signs of burnout. Joy, enthusiasm, and willingness to take on new tasks or initiatives are abundant. However, this surge of creativity often leads to taking on more work than one likely should.

2. Onset of Stress

Without taking time for personal needs, stress sets in. Work might become the sole focus of someone’s life, and early signs of stress include migraines, anxiety, change in appetite, and high blood pressure.

3. Chronic Stress

Living in frequent high-stress levels can put an individual in a state of chronic stress, where problem-solving skills and performance might decrease as a result. Productivity rates will slow down, procrastination sets in, and irritability, sadness, and self-medication could all be experienced.

4. Burnout

Not addressing stress when it became present in the previous stages results in despair, disillusionment, exhaustion, and fatigue. Physical symptoms may add and intensify.

5. Habitual Burnout

Without a full recovery from burnout, the state and symptoms may become a part of your everyday life. Losing joy in favorite hobbies, disconnecting with personal relationships, chronic fatigue, and depression are all consequences of not addressing or not recovering from burnout.

In addition to the five stages of burnout, there are three different subtypes of burnout: Frenetic, Under Challenged, and Worn-Out.


The frenetic worker continues to push themselves to work despite feeling overloaded and overwhelmed. They put their own needs by the wayside in order to fulfil work demands. Someone with Frenetic burnout may work themselves to the point of exhaustion in search of success.


Someone who feels that their work doesn’t offer the right opportunities to develop their skills, and as a result, feels indifferent, bored, and lacking.


Mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. When plans go awry, this person stops trying altogether, becoming passive and unmotivated.

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