Nurse Burnout: How COVID-19 is Affecting Essential Workers and Tips for Avoiding the Crush

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced millions to stay home, essential workers marched on. In addition to grocery store workers, postal service employees, gas station attendants, and delivery drivers are countless nurses sacrificing their time at home and their personal well-being to see to the health and safety of others. That dedication comes at a cost.

The concept of nurse burnout isn’t new, but it is growing.

The stress of the pandemic and threat of viral infection looms large. While there’s no more a solution to overworked, overtired healthcare staff than there is to the coronavirus itself, understanding what our nurses go through and sharing resources for reducing burnout is a crucial first step.

Understanding Burnout and Compassion Fatigue

Nurse burnout occurs when long hours and patient overload leads to problems with a nurse’s physical, mental and emotional state. The condition is characterized by a range of symptoms including

  • Fatigue
  •  job-related cynicism
  • Irritability
  • inability to cope with change
  • and the appearance that they’ve “checked out.”

Employees who are burnt out might call in sick often, express dissatisfaction with a job they used to love, and show signs of clinical depression.

Long hours, fear over contracting COVID, and general stress can all contribute to burnout.

Compassion fatigue is similar but focused more on the emotional and mental strain that accompanies spending so much time caring about other people. Comforting families who are watching loved ones suffer is incredibly draining. Nurses may take on third-party trauma and feel that stress and grief as if it’s their own. And in fact some nurses do get so attached to patients that they mourn those who don’t make it.

As of early November 2020, there have been over 9.1 million cases of COVID-19 in the United States, and 230,383 deaths. Roughly 20% of those infected develop breathing difficulties and other issues that require hospitalization, and nurses are at the forefront of their care.

They watch as those critically infected with the novel coronavirus are hooked up to ventilators and sit alone, unable to be comforted by family members thanks to strict social distancing guidelines. It’s bound to take a toll — and it does.

A study of 2,000 frontline workers in Wuhan, China, found:

  • 60.5% experienced emotional exhaustion
  • 42.3% experienced depersonalization
  • 91.2% reported moderate-to-high levels of fear
  • 14.3% reported moderate-to-high levels of anxiety
  • 10.7% reported moderate-to-high levels of depression
  • 94.8% reported stress-related skin lesions

Interestingly, and despite all the above, 96.8% of nurses surveyed said they were still willing to work on the frontlines.

Tips to Help Avoid Nurse Burnout

Nurses are so good at what they do because they’re so passionate about the people they’re helping. Quitting isn’t an option or even a consideration for most, so the best way to avoid nurse burnout is by finding coping mechanisms.

  • Take a break from the news.
    Watching just three minutes of negative news in the morning can increase the odds you’ll feel unhappy later in the day by 27%.
  • Tweak your diet.
    The old adage “you are what you eat” is true in that if you eat junk, you’re going to feel junky too. Focus on a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and lots and lots of water.
  • Laugh.
    No less an authority than the Mayo Clinic says laughter can stimulate your organs, increase endorphins, relieve stress, soothe muscle tension, boost your immune system, relieve pain, help you cope with difficult situations, facilitate interpersonal connections, and leave you happier than you were before you had a giggle or two. So, watch some standup, trade jokes with a friend, or put that dumb YouTube video on repeat. It’s good for you.
  • Learn to say no.
    You can’t exactly refuse to do your job (nor would you necessarily want to), but you can shut down people who want more than you can give outside of work. It’s okay to skip that Skype happy hour with friends and not listen to your mom’s complaining for the 11th time that week. Set boundaries that feel healthy and stick to them.
  • Find a physical outlet.
    The gym isn’t for everyone and many aren’t even open right now, but there are other ways to work up a sweat. Take up gardening. Dance to old Prince videos. Play tag with your kids. Get a bike. Get a tandem bike and then you’ll take care of the “more laughing” suggestion too.
  • Step away from social media.
    For the same reason news broadcasts can suck you dry, Facebook and Instagram can be emotionally and mentally draining. Turn off your phone at least an hour before bed and see if you can’t find other ways to distract yourself throughout the day.
  • Practice gratitude.
    Start your day by cataloging things that you’re thankful for. They can be almost anything ranging from your favorite cereal to the health of your siblings.
  • Seek support.
    Burnout happens. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Help exists, so if you’re feeling down, stretched, or otherwise not yourself, please reach out and ask for assistance.

How and Where to Get Help

It’s a message that’s so important we’ll say it twice: Nurse burnout is nothing to be ashamed of. It happens even when we’re not eyeball deep in a pandemic, and these days COVID is exacerbating things exponentially.

If you or someone you know needs help, please use these resources:

  • Holistic Self-Care Strategies for Nurses by the AHNA
  • WHO Guidelines for Frontline Workers — Know your rights and what protections you’re entitled to while on the job to help ease fears and increase peace of mind
  • Happy — An app partnered with the American Nurses Association to provide nurses with an open ear, empathy, and connection 24/7
  • Therapy Aid Coalition — Free and low-free therapy serving essential workers and their adult family remembers (as well as those impacted by the wildfires in California and Colorado)
  • Emergency Nurses Association — Virtual peer support groups so you can talk things out with people who truly understand
  • Nurses House — If you contract COVID and find yourself seriously ill, disabled, or otherwise in difficult circumstances, this national fund may be able to help
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline —1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline — 1-800-985-5990
  • Crisis Text Line —Text HOME to 741741

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