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Pandemic Burnout: How Healthcare Professionals Can Cope

Over a year ago, the Covid-19 pandemic broke out and took the entire world by surprise. Although this is not the first outbreak and it will not be the last, modern society hasn’t experienced a health crisis of this nature in decades. 

Knowing nothing about Covid-19, we led ourselves to believe life could go on as usual. Then when we thought this health emergency might subside in a few months, we psyched ourselves up to deal with the changes that come with it. A year into this pandemic with no definitive end in sight, people are now beginning to experience stress or “pandemic fatigue”, particularly the healthcare workers.    

With thousands of patients dying from Covid-19 and about ten times more being affected all over the world every single day, just imagine the stress our healthcare workers face on a daily basis. Not to mention those people who are not only adamant about refusing to be vaccinated but are also deliberately breaking health protocols, which of course, only make matters worse. 

After dealing with this crisis for more than a year, it’s only natural for healthcare professionals to feel worn out, exhausted, or just simply over this “new normal” as they call it. In this article, you’ll learn what is causing pandemic fatigue and how to manage it.


What is Pandemic Fatigue?

At first, many of us felt the sense of urgency to protect ourselves from the virus. And surely, we did our part by staying home to help slow down the spread. A year later, that sense of urgency may have dwindled a little, which is a telltale sign of pandemic fatigue. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) defined Pandemic fatigue as “a natural and expected reaction to sustained and unresolved adversity in people’s lives” — such as what Covid-19 is doing to our lives right now. It is expressed by an emerging demotivation or complacency to engage in protective behaviors or seek any information related to Covid-19 due to isolation and hopelessness.

The increasing workload and stress of healthcare professionals (HCP) as Covid-19 patients continue to rise and with no apparent resolution is causing them to feel this pandemic fatigue that may eventually lead to pandemic (Covid-19) burnout. 

Factors contributing to burnout in healthcare professionals

Healthcare systems all over the world are desperately maximizing efforts to provide needed resources in mitigating the spread and reducing morbidity and mortality from Covid-19. 

Most HCPs are facing increased challenges, workload, and stress that make them vulnerable to burnout. 

Furthermore, the lack of support that some of them are receiving from healthcare institutions and their government as well as the non-compliance of the citizens to adhere to health protocols and precautions only intensify the situation. In the Philippines, most HCPs are not only underpaid but their compensation is also well overdue. 

That being said, a journal published in 2020 has verified factors that are most likely to contribute to healthcare professional burnout. Here are the top 4 factors identified:

1. High Workload

During this pandemic, most HCPs feel that they are being pushed beyond their training. It is undeniable that patient admissions have more than doubled since the outbreak and HCPs are forced to work more than they usually do while being constricted to act under available resources — which are very limited. As if their job is not challenging enough already, Covid-19 has certainly taken a toll on their physical and mental health. 

2. High Job Stress

Another factor associated with burnout among HCPs is the fact that they are pressured to make life-or-death prioritizing decisions. The whole world is affected by Covid-19. Making decisions on who to live or die, or who gets treated first when everybody is a priority can be very stressful. It is just nearly impossible to please and cater to everyone’s needs all at the same time.

3. High Time Pressure

Due to the escalating number of active Covid-19 cases, HCPs are required to work longer hours, increasing their vulnerability in contracting the virus. Despite their families dealing with the same health crisis as everyone else, they won’t even have enough time to spend with their loved ones.  Imagine being a healthcare provider and yet you can’t even take care of your own family. 

4. Limited Organizational Support

With the other three factors already contributing to burnout, the limited organizational support only adds insult to injury. Most HCPs don’t have adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect themselves from the virus. This hinders HCPs from performing effectively as they dread their high vulnerability to contracting the virus. 

Coping with pandemic fatigue and burnout

Now that it has probably dawned on us that Covid-19 may be here longer than we initially thought, learning how to deal with pandemic fatigue and burnout is crucial for having a sound mind and body– even more so for healthcare professionals on the frontlines against Covid-19. Because really, how can we expect them to continue helping others when they can’t even cope appropriately?  

Since HCPs are tasked to spearhead the campaign to put an end to this pandemic while also absorbing all the issues, challenges, and complaints from the people, they must maintain their own emotional, physical, and mental well-being.

Around the world, studies have identified the prevalence of burnout among HCPs in the United States (49.28%), India (52.8%), and university-affiliated hospitals (53.0%) among others. With almost half of workers indicating burnout, it’s about time we take this seriously and address the issue.

ot All Heroes Wear Capes. Illustrated by Manny Davila

6 tips to manage pandemic fatigue and burnout

Building resiliency and feeling more in control of your life may help you better adjust to this health crisis.  Improve your coping mechanisms by taking note of these 6 tips. 

1. Acknowledge your feelings

It helps to recognize how you feel about this pandemic, even if those feelings are telling you that things might never get better. Don’t set your emotions aside and pretend you’re doing fine when you’re actually feeling terrible. 

It’s okay to experience tiredness, exhaustion, or even hopelessness for a while, as long as you acknowledge it. Then move on to the next phase and try to figure out what you can do to make things better. 

2. Reframe your thinking

It is justifiable if you are already sick and tired of all the increased workload, quarantine protocols, and daily increase of active Covid-19 cases. Even the simple wearing of masks has become quite a stressor. But remind yourself of your sense of purpose and realize that you play a larger role in humanity by trying to help everyone survive this health crisis, including yourself. 

photo of woman with stethoscope hanging on the back of her neck
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

3. Use your sense of humor

Did you know that laughter is a good form of stress relief? While feeling burnout is no laughing matter, go ahead and laugh — if you can. The saying that “laughter is the best medicine” is no joke. Sharing laughter with your friends and family may help improve your mood and increase your satisfaction. 

If you are starting to feel the weight of Covid-19, find a way to laugh and watch your stress begin to fade away. Watching comedy shows or spending time with people that make you laugh can help you manage burnout better.

4. Connect with others

Healthcare professionals are expected to work longer hours in this time of crisis, which forces them to be removed from friends and family. This can generate a lot of stress since you can’t be with the very people that can help you relax or make you happy. 

However, physical presence is not the only way to connect with people. Thankfully, there are many ways you can reach out to others through the internet. So make it a habit of calling your loved ones every now and then. Also, you can use your free time to have socially distanced hangouts outdoors with friends to reduce stress. 

5. Take care of yourself

When you’re too absorbed in taking care of your patients and adjusting to the demands at work, you may forget to take care of yourself. You can start by getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and eating healthy. Doing these things can boost your energy level, cheer you up, and make you more effective at work. 

6. Seek support

How has Covid-19 affected you? Are you sleeping and eating well enough? If pandemic fatigue is affecting your performance at work and your motivation to serve others, you should seek professional help. Having someone to talk to and let out your frustrations may help prevent burnout. 

The Bottom Line

To all the frontliners, what you are doing is crucial for our continued existence and your unwavering efforts certainly bring confidence that there will be better days to look forward to. We are all sacrificing for the greater good and working together will help us get through this crisis. 

While most people are also doing their part by staying at home, getting vaccinated, and following health protocols, it is important to remember that there is hope and we all want to believe that this pandemic will soon be over.

But for now, continue to keep fighting because we are rooting for you. Covid-19 will be even more difficult to overcome if you healthcare professionals start to give up. Stay optimistic and know that all your efforts and sacrifices are greatly appreciated.  

Also, let us all call for the government and health organizations to address this issue and provide the necessary support sooner than later before our healthcare system collapses. 

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