The pandemic has impacted many of us around the world, especially the frontline health care workers — myself included here in Melbourne, Australia. It is time we address these issues and bring the conversation into the open.
Politicians talk about opening the borders for travel and revitalization post-COVID-19. They fail to talk about the emotional pain that the frontline health care workers went through during the pandemic and the lasting effect on the health care industry and economy.
It is hard to imagine what frontline health care workers had to go through during the worst of the pandemic: Caring for colleagues who were ill, offering comfort to dying patients who were isolated from their loved ones, and informing and consoling patients’ family members remotely.
Some frontline health care workers were burdened with emotionally and ethically fraught decisions about resource rationing and withholding resuscitation or ICU admission. They shared the pain of patients without COVID-19 who had their surgery or other essential treatments canceled or postponed.
The fear of transmitting COVID-19 led many health professionals to isolate themselves from their families for months. Working remotely and being shunned by community members further contributed to their loneliness. Words cannot describe the extent of their emotional pain.
The stress on doctors and nurses pre-COVID was already apparent. They are known to be at risk for anxiety, depression, burnout, insomnia, moral distress and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Under usual working conditions, severe burnout syndrome affects as many as 33 percent of critical care nurses and up to 45 percent of critical care physicians.
COVID-19 has certainly worsened the dilemma of severe burnout in the frontline health care workers, and unfortunately, many are still fighting the war of the pandemic at the time I’m writing this. Strained and poorly resourced health systems certainly added to the dilemma of severe burnout in these health care workers.
Severe burnout can certainly cause physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental pain in these frontline health care workers. As a consequence, some health care workers end up self-medicating with alcohol and drugs, which is detrimental to their health in the long term. Their relationships are impaired, marriages break down. In the worst cases, suicides arise. This has to be addressed as these stoic workers naturally do not complain or seek assistance for these burnout problems. They suffer in silence.
Suffering something similar in my career, I know the detrimental impact of not having a voice or being heard in the medical community. Medical professionals do not want to appear weak, so they continue until something breaks.
As a pain physician, I understand where the frontline health care workers are coming from. The intense pain and suffering that they are experiencing. I want to help those that feel this pain before it becomes too much. In my writings, I reveal my own personal journey from burnt out to balanced life in medicine and the advice that helped me. I hope it will help you too.
You are not alone.
Olivia Ong is a pain and rehabilitation medicine physician in Australia.
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