Dealing with fatigue, burnout and the unknown

August 17, 2020  //  FOUND IN: Updates & Resources,

Five months ago, many of our lives changed drastically. What some thought would be a two-week stay home order has led to an unknown return to a completely new normal. 

From physicians, nurses, staff and faculty to those working remotely, managing work and personal life during the pandemic is nothing short of exhausting. The workforce is facing a great deal of uncertainty as the fall season approaches.

The mental impacts of COVID-19 on work and personal life

COVID-19 has truly taken a mental toll on communities, workplaces, families and individuals. And we must acknowledge that many of our colleagues have experienced the impacts of anxiety, worry, financial shifts, loss of loved ones, family demands and even increased workloads.

“It is okay to feel overwhelmed, sad, scared and worried,” said Megan Riehl, PsyD, assistant professor of internal medicine at Michigan Medicine. “Allow yourself time to feel those valid emotions. Next, focus on what is within your control. Engage in activities you enjoy and value during time away from work. Set boundaries with your time and try to separate yourself from your phone and computer when you end your work day.”

During the pandemic, Riehl spent the first 10 weeks providing 100 percent of behavioral health care services virtually from her new home office with two toddlers as coworkers. Despite stressful times, her patients were thankful and her work was valued as she engaged in wellness discussions and crisis intervention for frontline staff. 

Whether you are on the frontline or working remotely, the mental impacts of COVID-19 can be draining. Depending on your role, it may be very hard to step away for even five minutes just to rest. If you find yourself in a down moment, remember your work is valued and that you are not alone. 

Emotions in the face of difficult times 

Since March, emotions have been described as roller coasters or comparable to the phases of disaster in the SAMSHA chart shown to the right.

“We did have a period where we saw people come together with great excitement and cohesion. We saw amazing stories of triumph and full engagement as people gave their all to commit to this cause,” said Nicole Figueroa, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), resilience and wellbeing nurse leader. “Now, we see the exhaustion and disillusionment, and while intellectually it makes sense that our community would follow the same trend as we know disaster science tells us, we are now in the uncomfortable middle fraught with weariness, frustration and an immense sense of tiredness.”

Figueroa added that in order to continue providing excellent care for patients and families, staff members need to recharge.

Strength in vulnerability

With such strong emotions, some may find it hard to recognize and validate feelings of suffering and distress.

However, there is great strength in vulnerability. When feelings or emotions are acknowledged and supported, the outcome allows an individual to take that experience and apply it going forward.

“I would say the largest theme I have bared witness too, is the great ability to endure immense change (daily constant change) and still show up to care the best [clinicians] can for the patients that place their lives in our hands,” said Figueroa. 

While Figueroa hopes for a time of ease where people can breathe a little, the reality is the current impact on employees could be exhaustion, powerlessness, grief and sadness.

Acknowledging and addressing ongoing burdens

As the organization adapts to change, it will be important for leaders to offer safe spaces for their teams to share concerns, practice active listening and validate the struggles that are happening. Destigmatizing mental health and acknowledging there is a high risk of burnout is a start.

“Medical providers and staff are working in unprecedented times with burdens that impact us physically, emotionally, financially and beyond,” said Riehl. “Some problems will not be immediately solvable but hearing that leadership recognizes the burden is helpful.”

Burnout does not discriminate. It can affect anyone, regardless of role, industry or pay. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for mental health, fatigue or burnout. As departments look to offer support to their staff, flexibility and creativity for problem solving individual needs is instrumental to being inclusive. 

“COVID-19 is deeply affecting all of us, and we are all doing the best we can,” said Figueroa. “Most of all, we should honor our collective struggle and give ourselves and those around us compassion as we walk this journey together.”

Important resources

Michigan Medicine offers several incredible resources for wellness, yet face-to-face interactions are truly missed. Before masks, people could find comfort in a polite smile, small talk or a wave when entering a room or walking down the hallway. Now, with virtual meetings and limited on-campus attendance, a simple check-in or pause in conversation to ask “Really, how are you doing?” can change the course of someone’s day. 

With extremely overbooked schedules and the demands of family life, offering to help problem solve or just being a listening ear is comforting to those who may be struggling with burnout. 

Several teams across the organization have found creative ways to connect outside of work hours in order to support and share encouragement during this difficult time. Here are a few ideas: 

  • Intentionally spend time in respite rooms (the UH Dining Rooms A/B and C/D are now open)
  • Hold virtual coffee hours or happy hours 
  • Participate in virtual game nights
  • Offer fitness and exercise meetings (including yoga and meditation) 
  • Encourage weekly emails from department leaders

There is much work to be done to address fatigue and burnout. In the meantime, supporting each other, changing the conversation around vulnerability and teamwork will help us all through this time. 

Related readings: Zoom Fatigue and Overall Life Fatigue is Real | Prioritizing Physician Mental Health as COVID-19 Marches On (JAMA) | Employee Mental Health & Wellbeing During & Beyond COVID-19

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