In the healthcare field, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, physicians and their offices have been swamped with patients and having to adjust their methods of treatment. Because many offices and hospitals have been 'all hands on deck,' medical professionals are starting to report burnout.

One survey by Mental Health America found that 93% of healthcare workers are experiencing stress and 76% report exhaustion and burnout.[1] Much of that stems from emotional exhaustion (according to 82% of the respondents), lack of sleep (70%), physical exhaustion (68%), and work-related dread (63%).

Another survey by Berxi, a division of Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance, reveals similar findings, with 84% of healthcare workers saying they felt at least mildly burned out from work, and 18% say they are totally burned out.[2] Their top stressors include fear of getting and spreading COVID-19 and working long hours.

With no definitive end in sight, it's important for healthcare workers who are feeling the personal and professional strain of of the pandemic to recognize the signs of burnout and learn ways to cope with it.

What exactly is burnout?

As defined by the World Health Organization (WHO)[3], burnout signs include:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

Though anyone can have these feelings from time to time, if you’re experiencing these on a regular basis and wake up each day with a sense of dread, you are likely headed toward burnout.

How to prevent burnout

Though it’s difficult to prepare for the kind of unprecedented and ongoing stress brought on by the pandemic, there are small things you can do on a daily basis to get through challenging times.

Go easy on yourself. Set limits and learn to say no. Taking on extra shifts is OK some of the time, but you can’t do it all the time. And when you're at home, let go of the guilt if you haven’t been able to do as much with your family or keep up with the house. Don’t put pressure on yourself to be the wife/husband or mom/dad of the year – your family will understand if you need some respite with everything going on.

Lean on your support network. Families and friends of healthcare workers also have an important role to play. You may need your loved ones to help you with household responsibilities and be understanding if you can't meet every family obligation. Having a heart to heart with those in your circle can go a long way. If you can afford it, it may also help to outsource tasks like housecleaning and homework help for your kids.

Find small moments to recharge. Coffee with a friend, a few uninterrupted minutes to listen to some music or a podcast (a non-pandemic, non-political one), a quick walk outside in the fresh air – these are all quick ways to step away from the strains of healthcare work.

Leave work at work. When you arrive home, it’s normal to want to discuss your day with your partner, and that’s great if it makes you feel better. But if you find that it’s bringing up too many tough emotions, try setting a 10 minute limit to get things off your chest, and then shift the focus to other things.

Look for the positives. It can be traumatic when you’re losing patients and surrounding by sickness, but try to make room in your mind for the triumphs, the people you’ve helped comfort, recover, or save. No matter the outcome, remember the good that you do for others.

Seek help if needed. Just as you’d recommend to a patient or upset family to speak with a therapist or counselor if things get too difficult, you need to take your own advice. Healthcare work is sometimes a tough burden to bear alone.

Take care of your body. Getting enough sleep, eating well, and staying hydrated are such simple things but are often the first habits put aside during a crisis. It's so important to try your best to rest and get proper nutrients to help get you through those long work days.

Avoid social media, news, or other pandemic messaging. The constant bad news in the media and negativity and fighting on online social networks can really bring you down. If you find yourself “doomscrolling,” and feeling worse for it, you have to cut yourself off. Perhaps leave your phone in another room when you go to bed, or make a no social media/no news rule after 7:00 p.m. Your mind needs a break from negativity.

Practice mindfulness. Deep breathing, stretching, and yoga can all help you decompress and find some calm in your day. You can start with just five minutes at a time. There are even mobile apps that you can use whenever you need a moment.

A sign of hope

Though there were times throughout the pandemic where it seemed no end was in sight, the vaccination rollout and improved case numbers in certain areas throughout the country provide optimism. Realizing the worst part of the crisis could be behind us can help energize you to get through the next few months.

In the meantime, you’ve been through a lot, and even if you haven’t reached full-fledged burnout, the last year has likely taken some toll on your own health and well-being. Be sure to catch up with your own health appointments and preventative care. And once staffing isn’t stretched so thin, try taking some time off or scaling back your hours to enjoy a well-deserved break.