We are putting our healthcare system and frontline workers under dangerous strain. The COVID19 pandemic has changed us forever and after almost a year of social distancing and hiding our faces behind masks, we’re still seeing surge after surge after surge.
On Christmas Eve, California reached two million cases of COVID and has severely taxed the system. A conscientious nurse we will call “Lisa” for the sake of her anonymity confirmed a general malaise in the medical field. “Burnout is definitely occurring. And for those that were already experiencing ‘compassion fatigue’ prior to Covid-19, this experience has accelerated it.” In a July MetLife report on the mental health of the U.S. workforce, two in three employers said they expect a mental health crisis in the U.S. within three years. The demands of the pandemic have affected hospital staff and signs of burnout are impossible to ignore. According to Clinical Oncology News, signs of burnout include sadness, depression, irritability, frustration, isolation, poor hygiene, social isolation, feelings of hopelessness and low job satisfaction.
Symptoms may have fatal consequences. There’s a lack of disassociation: Nurses call out sick. They’re short-tempered, depressed, and lack empathy. They may delay answering patient call lights. For those who struggle to provide patient care, the task can feel overwhelming. “I find myself seeing a lot of fear in my patients, and it’s difficult to not have the time to help them through their emotions…especially the ones that do not have family or friends for support,” explains Lisa. “The most vulnerable have been our dementia /Alzheimer’s population. Keeping them safe as well as staff has been a great challenge, as this population does not understand the importance of wearing a mask or staying in their room. They wander the halls,” says the nurse.
Lisa is a dedicated nursing professional who I interviewed about her experiences with COVID19. “I am not afraid to go to work. This is what I have been trained for. I knew becoming a nurse, that one day I may have to put my own health at risk. But could the risk be reduced or prevented with some proper planning? Yes. And that’s what we are all upset about. These are things I am afraid of: I am afraid of losing colleagues to COVID. I am afraid we will run out of PPE. I am afraid we will run out of oxygen. I am afraid we will have to let people die when we didn’t have to.”
A System Under Pressure
Our healthcare system is at a critical juncture and action must be taken soon. There are no reinforcements, no cavalry on its way. “I hope this pandemic has made it clear to all federal, state and local health agencies,” says Lisa. “We need competent leadership, which include voices from the frontline to contribute to public health policies. We need to follow evidence-based policies that have seen success in other countries.” She remembers how difficult it was at first to find enough Personal Protective Equipment for the sudden massive demand. Initially and ironically, the first wave of PPE came from China. “We need domestic manufacturing of PPE from now on. We need timely, accurate and truthful information.”
COVID has also invaded Lisa’s home life. Her regular duties don’t include seeing COVID patients, but she is pressed into duty on a regular basis. “When I am exposed, I isolate at home. I talk with my kids and husband via FaceTime and I do not physically sleep or eat near them for 72 hours and so far it’s kept them safe. Since March, I have taken my children for local walks, drive in movies, and an outdoor eating event at Knotts. No other travel. My husband has been taking on more responsibilities (assisting my son with online school) and shopping, and preparing meals. Work demands have increased, which impacts the amount of energy I have when I get home to give to my family. Since March, I have been getting tested for COVID twice a month (this is from my own initiative) on my day off. I have increased my exercise/ reading/ listening to music to help manage the stress.” But there is no end in sight, just a vague hope that with the vaccines we will see relief by next fall.
Dealing with COVID-19 Burnout
The World Health Organization has useful information for dealing with COVID burnout that advises:
- Keep informed. Listen to advice and recommendations from your national and local authorities. Follow trusted news channels, such as local and national TV and radio, and keep up-to-date with the latest news from @WHO on social media.
- Have a routine. Keep up with daily routines as far as possible, or make new ones.
- Get up and go to bed at similar times every day.
- Keep up with personal hygiene.
- Eat healthy meals at regular times.
- Exercise regularly.
- Allocate time for working and time for resting.
- Make time for doing things you enjoy.
- Minimize news feeds. Try to reduce how much you watch, read or listen to news that makes you feel anxious or distressed. Seek the latest information at specific times of the day, once or twice a day if needed.
- Social contact is important. If your movements are restricted, keep in regular contact with people close to you by telephone and online channels.
- Alcohol and drug use. Limit the amount of alcohol you drink or don’t drink alcohol at all. Don’t start drinking alcohol if you have not drunk alcohol before. Avoid using alcohol and drugs as a way of dealing with fear, anxiety, boredom and social isolation. There is no evidence of any protective effect of drinking alcohol for viral or other infections. In fact, the opposite is true as the harmful use of alcohol is associated with increased risk of infections and worse treatment outcomes. And be aware that alcohol and drug use may prevent you from taking sufficient precautions to protect yourself against infection, such as compliance with hand hygiene.
- Screen time. Be aware of how much time you spend in front of a screen every day. Make sure that you take regular breaks from on-screen activities.
- Video games. While video games can be a way to relax, it can be tempting to spend much more time on them than usual when at home for long periods. Be sure to keep the right balance with off-line activities in your daily routine.
- Social media. Use your social media accounts to promote positive and hopeful stories. Correct misinformation wherever you see it.
- Help others. If you are able to, offer support to people in your community who may need it, such as helping them with food shopping.
- Support health workers. Take opportunities online or through your community to thank your country’s health-care workers and all those working to respond to COVID-19.
We must rely on the strength, resiliency, and compassion of our healthcare workers. Our support will get us all through this worldwide crisis.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine.
Categories: Society & Culture