The COVID-19 pandemic has been raging in the United States for over two years. Health care workers across the country have been chronically pushed to their limits as we navigate difficult situations on a daily basis. The advent of the COVID-19 vaccine, although a powerful tool in our crusade against the pandemic, has created a new branch of emotions for health care workers towards unvaccinated patients or those with vaccine hesitancy. The empathy we are often expected to have without fail can be difficult to maintain in the face of these new challenges. Nonetheless, COVID-19 persists. We owe it to ourselves and our patients to find ways to deal with these complex emotions. Here are some tips to consider on how to cope with pandemic fatigue:
1. Dig a little deeper. Not within yourself, but rather while talking to your patients. For as much information as there is regarding the safety and efficacy of wearing masks, social distancing, and getting vaccinated, there is just as much if not more misinformation. One-sided news sources or social media accounts can lead vulnerable individuals down a path of jaded perspectives and false truths. Talking with our patients, delving into their opinions, and what information they have used to form those opinions may be one of the few things to combat the misnomers that are spreading through society like a virus all their own. Although others may have already attempted to get through to them with no success, you never know if you could be the one voice that finally helps them to understand.
2. Have some honest self-reflection. The only way to deal with the complicated feelings that come with managing COVID-positive patients is to first understand those emotions. Healthcare workers are all too familiar with handling stressful and exhausting circumstances and carrying on without a second thought. Now is not the time. Instead, we should stop and take pause to reflect on the job we have been doing. How am I feeling after work today? What was it that really drained my emotions during this shift? What can I do to better handle this if it happens again in the future? Taking just a little bit of time to consider these questions, even beyond the pandemic, can go a long way in helping us to maintain our personal wellness and prevent burnout.
3. Talk about it. The conversation about our feelings should not just be an internal one. It is not uncommon for healthcare workers to feel alone and isolated with the emotions we are experiencing. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has not been selective in who it has affected. Talk with co-workers, family, or friends about what you have been dealing with at work and how it is affecting you. At a minimum it will allow you to vent and expel these emotions. However, opening the conversation may help you realize that you are not alone in this and may allow others to offer insights into how you can better navigate these difficult times.
4. Disconnect. We all want to understand as much as we can about this virus and pandemic to best treat our patients. While we should, of course, be keeping up with the latest news on treatments and vaccines, burying ourselves in all things COVID 24/7 will inevitably lead to sensory overload. It is healthy and necessary to disconnect from things for a day or even a few hours every week. Use this opportunity to rekindle old hobbies or discover new ones. Even a short period of time away from this all-consuming pandemic will enable you to return to work refreshed and ready to continue helping others.
5. Find the little wins. Perhaps not every day will be positive, but there will be positive in every day. A great way to reflect and unwind is to take a moment to identify the things you were grateful for. Maybe it was a compliment from a patient or a helpful gesture from a co-worker. Or you were able to have an honest conversation with a patient, and they have decided they are going to get vaccinated. Each day has something positive to offer, even if we do not realize it at that moment. Findings these little wins can have big impacts on our overall mental health.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a burden for all of us, but there are ways to fight back. Reflecting on our emotions, talking with others, and finding a little bit of light on even the darkest days can help us to stay strong as we take care of one another and work towards a better future.
Masood R. Mohammed is an emergency medicine resident.
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