Along with the rise of COVID cases has come a wave of mental health crises, especially among healthcare workers. As the pandemic goes on, those on the front lines are, understandably, experiencing sustained levels of stress, anxiety, and frustration, in other words, burnout. Fortunately, conversations about mental health and illness have become more mainstream in recent years leading to a wealth of resources now adapted to address the specific needs of healthcare workers during this time.
Handling stressful situations, making life and death decisions, and confronting illness are not new for medical professionals. However, the scale and particularities of each have changed. Healthcare workers managing heavy caseloads and working long hours in stressful environments may do so in bursts by running off adrenaline. But over an extended period of time, the adrenaline wears off. This chronic period of elevated stress is “akin to what people might experience during prolonged war or refugee crises.” U.S. Military personnel assisting in New York hospitals even said this is the closest to combat they have seen in a civilian setting.
In regions with high mortality rates, “‘clinicians often describe a feeling of helplessness-an inability to render care…to the fullest extent they would desire.’” Changing safety protocols and information compound feelings of helplessness by making it difficult for workers to feel they are properly caring for patients and adequately protecting themselves.
Having sufficient protective equipment is not a guarantee. Even with it, workers still worry about their own health and the health of loved ones. That’s why many have sacrificed living with their families and support networks to limit risks. Not only are they separated from their own families, but they are also taking on the roles of patients’ loved ones. Nurses and nursing assistants often act as “conduits for video calls and emotional support” because patients’ families cannot be at their bedsides. Many have “forgone breaks to hold patients’ hands as they die,” says Dr. Jessica Gold, assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
In addition to feelings of helplessness and isolation, healthcare workers are also experiencing high levels of frustration. Many feel the concern and support they provide for others is not reciprocated outside hospitals. An article in the American Cancer Society Journals cited the politicizing of mask-wearing rather than focusing on the science as an example. One doctor even said it feels like “‘nobody’s listening, nobody’s following the rules…and the numbers aren’t going down.’” Refusing to wear masks or follow social distancing has a direct effect on healthcare workers making their jobs more difficult. This results in anger and even PTSD symptoms. A lack of time to process and heal as well as “a culture of stoicism” keep healthcare workers from seeking help.
It’s important to be able to recognize burnout so healthcare workers can receive help. According to the Minnesota Department of Health signs of burnout may include getting easily frustrated, experiencing sadness, depression, or apathy, disconnecting from others, poor self-care (diet and hygiene), and using unhealthy or unsafe coping mechanisms such as drugs or alcohol.
While these feelings are normal and valid, healthcare workers do not have to suffer from them. Coping strategies include diving back into old hobbies or picking up new ones, limiting media exposure, exercising regularly, and maintaining good sleep habits. Technology can help by tracking steps, glasses of water, heart rate, and setting alarms to take breaks, even if it’s just for a few moments to breathe.
Co-workers can adopt the buddy system. Partners “monitor each other’s stress, workload, and safety.” This is especially useful for those living alone or away from family by giving a sense of connection and being looked after. Buddies should set a schedule for check-ins either through texts, calls, or video chat. Social media support groups offer places to share, vent, and connect. For professional help, teletherapy companies, Talkspace and BetterHelp, offer healthcare workers 50% off their first month.
It’s also important to maintain connections outside of work. Have a game night via video chat; Pictionary and charades are great options using minimal supplies. Play video games or host a movie night. Amazon Prime even has a Watch Party feature they say is “almost like watching side-by-side in real life–without having to share your popcorn.” A list of more resources such as live mental health counselors and meditation apps can be found here.
If you are concerned you or someone you know may want to harm yourself or someone else, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255). Para obtener ayuda en Español, llama al 1-888-628-9454. Or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 and TTY 1-800-787-3224.