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Burnout a la COVID-19

Updated 4/11/20 1:28 pm

Burnout à la COVID-19

Welcome to burnout, no invitation required! By now you have reached or are approaching burnout. COVID-19 healthcare burnout is a unique type of work/personal-related stress, manifested in mental, physical and emotional exhaustion. It is brought on by prolonged stress that depletes our energy. The escalation of burnout symptoms is happening at warp speed – one step behind the spread.

Contributing Factors (not exhaustive)

Lack of Control
It’s extremely challenging to have control over something unchartered, persistent and aggressive. Think “whack-a-mole.”

Internal Pressure/Imminent Threat
Urgency to protect yourself, loved ones and patients.

Lack of Social Support
Social distancing can add to loneliness and “feeling alone in a crowd.” Technology is great (please use) but it can’t replace the camaraderie or intimacy felt with in-person contact.

Unclear or New Job Expectations
We are reinventing the wheel every day whether you are functioning in your normal role or learning a new one. It’s uncomfortable, unfamiliar, destabilizing and makes us doubt our competency.

Extreme Intense Activity
Crisis response is frenetic. Everything feels chaotic, urgent, and riddled with pressure. High intense activity is mental, physical and emotional.

Lack of Resources
HSS is extremely fortunate to have essential PPE. However, it is understandable to have concerns about PPE in the near future and for our colleagues at other hospitals.

Work-Life Imbalance
Whatever balance or imbalance you had previously was at least a known quantity. Everything today is new, forced and “making it up as you go along.”

Intense Emotional, Mental and Physical Stress
The threat of COVID-19 is 24/7 whether you are at work or home. It permeates much of your thought whether you are aware or not (i.e. during sleep). Mind, body and emotions are interconnected. If one area is affected, all areas are. 

Warning Signs of Burnout (not exhaustive)

  • Exhaustion (mental, physical, emotional)
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Making more than usual, or unusual errors
  • Forgetfulness
  • Reduced efficiency and productivity
  • Irritability, anger, sadness (beyond initial COVID-19 response)
  • Mental detachment from your job
  • Overall numbness
  • Pessimism, negativism
  • Insomnia, hypersomnia
  • Decreased motivation and satisfaction
  • Headaches, GI issues, new aches and pains
  • Increase in, or high blood pressure
  • Unusual difficulty managing pre-existing medical conditions, i.e diabetes, etc.
  • Increase or misuse of ETOH, smoking, substances
  • Unhealthy changes in eating habits

Burnout is not flexible, and will not accommodate your needs. You need to accommodate burnout. Dr. Joshua Davis, Fellow, Pulmonary/Critical Care Medicine NYP/WCMC recently said, There is no such thing as an emergency during a pandemic. He emphasized appropriate donning of PPE before entering a patient room was more important than what was happening in the room. It is akin to airlines urging parents to put on their oxygen mask first, then their child. If you are burnt out (or sick), you will not be able to help anyone. I am amazed by everyone’s steadfastness, but even Superman needs help and recovery from kryptonite. COVID-19 is our kryptonite.

In addition to daily self-care, it is vital to prophylactically address burnout. By taking care of yourself, you trigger a synergistic response to help your loved ones, patients, community and the world.

When you feel the inklings of burnout, please allow yourself time to recharge. The stakes are higher – errors can cause irreparable harm. Ask for and take what you need. Don’t compare yourself to others or berate yourself for being smart! You may think there is no time to recharge during a pandemic. There is no such thing as an emergency during a pandemic. If it’s 15 minutes during your shift, a walk around the block, an hour to unplug, a day off… Plan before you hit complete exhaustion which requires more recovery time. Allow for sufficient time to arrange coverage. This reduces your suffering and the burden on you team.

This holiday weekend and budding signs of spring represent a renewal, a triumph over suffering. Allow yourself to be renewed.

We want and need you for the journey, not just today!

Julie Kim, PhD
Clinical Psychologist