Managing Healthcare Burnout During a Crisis: Simple Strategies to Help Get You Through

In just three short months, the COVID-19 global pandemic has transformed the way the majority of people experience work. 

The lucky ones are working from home. The unlucky ones have lost their jobs as businesses are forced to close their doors and lay off employees. Still others are experiencing pay uncertainty. Essential workers in settings like grocery stores and pharmacies are scared of who, or what, they’ll come in contact with during their shift. 

While work in many sectors has slowed, hospitals in some regions are bursting at the seams — a trend that seems to be increasing as the pandemic evolves. Healthcare providers and essential support staff are on the frontlines during this crisis, risking not only daily exposure to COVID-19, but sheer physical and psychological exhaustion. As the patient caseload grows and hospitals become more overwhelmed, so do the doctors and nurses tasked with providing life-saving medical care. 

Social distancing is impossible and time off is not an option. 

In a time when essential healthcare workers are… well, essential, the threat of burnout and the need to manage it effectively have never been more pressing. 

What is Burnout?

In the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), the World Health Organization defines burnout as an occupational phenomenon 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.

Considering this definition, it’s easy to see how burnout among healthcare providers can be dangerous — both to their well-being and to that of the patients they serve. 

Mental health professional Samrah Humayun says that burnout can have psychological, emotional, and physiological effects. She emphasizes, “It’s important to be able to recognize the first signs of stress and its triggers, learn stress management techniques, and counter negative thoughts and feelings that stress that can evoke in order to avoid burnout”.

The trouble is, standard strategies for managing burnout — like taking a step back from work responsibilities to regroup — are not an option in a crisis situation like the one healthcare providers currently face. 

How to Manage Healthcare Burnout in a Crisis 

Prioritize Your Basic Needs

Doctors and nurses working on the frontlines in a crisis situation are focused on the needs of the patients in front of them, often to the detriment of their own. It isn’t uncommon to survive a 12-hour shift without eating, drinking, or even using the bathroom. This isn’t healthy, and it isn’t sustainable. No one can function optimally while their most basic needs go unmet. 

While controlling the demands on your time and the chaos in your environment may not be an option, preparing for long shifts with minimal down time is. 

If taking a real break isn’t an option, make sure the necessities are on hand. Bring a large water bottle and some healthy, high-energy snacks to work and store them where you can easily reach them. A baggy of nuts and dried fruit in your pocket, a water bottle and a banana stashed in the break room means that when you get a second, you’ll see them, remember that your body needs fuel, and take a swig.

Sleep When You Can

Sleep is a basic need, but it deserves its own discussion because of its vital role in physical and psychological restoration. 

We know that stress and sleep have a cyclical relationship. When stress signals the body to release adrenaline and cortisol, heart rate rises, blood gets moving, and you feel amped up. In high-pressure situations, this fight or flight response can work to your benefit, driving your performance. 

But prolonged periods in this state can make it hard to unwind when you finally get some down time and desperately need sleep. This problem is compounded for shift workers with irregular sleep schedules. 

In turn, chronic sleep deprivation contributes to feelings of stress and less effective coping. 

It’s essential that healthcare workers powering through high-stress situations develop techniques for unwinding before bed. A pre-sleep routine lets the brain know that it’s time to transition into a restful mode. For many, though, a luxurious bubble bath followed by a 30-minute meditation just isn’t realistic. 

Something that might be? 

  • A light meal to nourish the body if you haven’t eaten 
  • A hot shower to relax the tired muscles 
  • Ten minutes of focused deep breathing (apps like Calm can help)
  • Changing into pajamas 

Making sure your bedroom is clutter-free and very dark also helps make your space more restful. Blackout curtains or blinds are essential for those mornings coming off of night shift, since sunlight is a powerful wakefulness cue.  

Take Advantage of Employee Assistance Programs

Depending where you work, you may have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) available to you. EAPs often include access to free counseling, which can be an excellent tool for coping with immense stress and the feelings of hopelessness and demotivation that accompany burnout. 

During crisis situations, spare time is a luxury that many healthcare providers just don’t have. It can be extremely difficult to schedule a phone or video call with a counselor. If that describes your situation, even an email exchange can be beneficial. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) teaches people how to identify and challenge thoughts that cause negative emotional reactions. Prolonged exposure to the high-stress environments healthcare professionals encounter during a crisis can understandably result in feelings of hopelessness. Although the crisis will eventually pass, it’s hard to remember that when you’re living it, day in, day out. CBT can help you identify extreme thoughts that contribute to those feelings and replace them with more supportive ones. Your EAP may include access to an app that facilitates CBT on the fly, so you can work on your mental health wherever and whenever you can.

Additionally, many EAPS include free online resources for managing stress, such as breathing exercises and journal templates.  

Practice Meditation

Meditation and mindfulness have become buzz words in the self-care space in recent years, making them sound trendy and fluffy to the uninitiated. 

They also sound foolishly simple — why should focusing on breath have any impact on stress? 

Well, turns out, it does. Focusing your attention on (being mindful of) your breath disengages racing negative thoughts, forcing you to experience just this moment. Studies show that regular meditation is associated with reduced levels of psychological stress and reductions in physiological signs of stress like heart rate and blood pressure. 

If you don’t know the first thing about meditation, the good is that there are hundreds of free videos and apps you can access any time, any place. Time investment required to get started? Five minutes. 

Don’t Alienate Yourself

Initial messaging during the COVID-19 pandemic stressed the importance of social distancing. That means keeping at least two feet between you and anyone else. As the weeks stretch on, some governments are changing their language to emphasize physical distancing and promoting social connection via the phone and internet. 

The experience of healthcare providers is very different. Their jobs make physical distancing impossible, but their schedules, workload, and stress levels may keep them disconnected from family and friends. 

It’s important to maintain connections with people outside the hospital. Scheduling a phone or video check in with a family member or friend every couple of days can help keep you grounded and aware of an existence outside of your job. 

Lean On Your Colleagues (But Not Literally)

While it’s critical to maintain relationships outside the hospital, your colleagues can be an excellent source of support because they know exactly what you’re going through. 

Congregating in the staff room might not be a smart idea right now, but a Facebook group for healthcare providers in your hospital or region can be a great medium for sharing experiences, resources, and support. 

Get Fresh Air and Sunlight

Although your schedule likely doesn’t allow for leisurely walks outside, try to get out for a quick lap when you can. Exercise, fresh air, and sunlight can have an uplifting impact on your mental health. 

Minimize Other Stressors in Your Life

Streamline other aspects of your life as much as possible to minimize sources of stress outside of work. If you have children, this is harder, but finding high-quality, trustworthy childcare can help. 
Automate as much as you can. Have your groceries delivered and set all your bills and investments up as preauthorized debits. By staying on top of your finances with minimal effort, you’ll have one less thing to stress about. That way, you can focus on your work and your well-being during these chaotic times.

About the Author

Sandra Parsons is a professional freelance writer specializing in personal finance, health, and psychology. She holds a master’s degree in psychology from Memorial University and spent four years working in healthcare research, evaluation, and policy. To learn more about working with Sandra, click here