By Noemi Vigano, Chartered Counselling Psychologist and Clinical Lead for product research and development at SilverCloud Health
Since the COVID-19 pandemic started earlier this year, we’ve all experienced changes to our lives and routines. To a bigger or a lesser extent these are bound to have had an impact on our wellbeing. However, there are certain factors that we know put some groups at an increased risk of experiencing high-level stress. One of these is healthcare workers on the frontline during the COVID-19 pandemic, who are significantly more likely to experience additional stress.
When facing stress and uncertainty we all have different realities and experiences and we all do our best to cope, so it’s important not to compare your situation to another person’s.
If you are a healthcare worker, you may be exposed to additional sources of stress because of different reasons:
- You may be working extended shifts or seeing more patients, while trying to stay up to date with evolving COVID-19 treatments and protocols.
- Your intense work schedule could make it much harder for you to practice self-care and connect with your social support network.
- You may be experiencing stress in your personal life due to the crisis - or other unrelated issues – as you attempt to maintain standards of care for vulnerable patients.
- You may feel tired of and restricted by protective equipment. It could take a physical toll on you, and it may become harder to provide the level of comfort you usually offer to distressed patients in your care.
- If you have children and are required to work full shifts, it could be challenging to find someone to look after them.
- You may experience stigma due to your increased exposure to the virus, which could cause you to feel isolated and lonely.
- You may be concerned about your health and the potential health risk to your family members.
- You may face an increase in difficult or distressing situations and decisions.
- You may have to quickly adjust to new colleagues and guidelines, with no time to reflect and adapt.
- You may have to practice social distancing or isolate entirely from your family and children.
Being vulnerable to high levels of stress can increase your chances of becoming overwhelmed. You need to be aware of how you are feeling before you can find ways to cope with your new circumstances.
So, if you are experiencing more stress, what can you do to mind yourself in the middle of working on the frontline of a pandemic?
Top tips for healthcare workers:
Pay attention to and notice how you are feeling:
Be aware of your stress levels: stress can accumulate and become overwhelming and chronic unless managed. Keep an eye and monitor how you’re doing.
Remind yourself that feeling stressed is normal under the exceptional circumstances we are living through. It is okay not to be okay.
You may feel like you are not doing enough and that you’re not up to the task. Remember that becoming stressed or overwhelmed simply shows you are human and is in no way a reflection of your abilities.
Some stress is helpful in energizing you to keep going in the current situation, but it is important to manage it so that it does not become excessive and overwhelms you.
You may also experience a range of unpleasant and unwelcome emotions, maybe also towards patients, on top of dealing with a lot of uncertainty on a daily basis. You may feel anger for non-compliance with social distancing restrictions, you may feel powerless at times and you may find it hard to feel compassionate towards patients at other times. This is normal and to be expected. However, it is important that you reach out for support if these feelings start becoming unsettling.
Once you recognize that things are impacting on you, you can find new ways to cope with your situation. Remember, even doing something small to look after yourself can make a big difference to your stress levels.
What you need to do:
Self-care is hardest when you need it most. You may not feel like it is a priority when you have so much to do, but it is and cannot be negotiable at this time. You need to make sure you look after your basic physical and mental health needs or you won’t be able to look after others.
Like it is recommended on flights in case of an emergency: you need to put your own oxygen mask on before you can look after anyone else.
- Eat well and look after your body - Make sure you get enough exercise as it is the single most helpful tool to help you manage your mental health. Don’t skip meals or breaks, no matter how busy you are. Stretching or simply getting some fresh air can be a simple and quick way to mind yourself.
- Beware of unhelpful coping strategies - (Alcohol, tobacco etc), which can easily become automatic ways to try and make ourselves feel better at times of stress. However, these can have a negative impact on your mental health, so it is a good idea to try and keep an eye on them.
- Get enough sleep – Sleep can be a challenge at this time, but it is essential to your ability to make sound decisions.
- Find ways to care for yourself - What are the things that help you care for yourself? You may need to get a little creative at this time as some of your self-care tools may not be options due to current restrictions.
Connect - You may find yourself somewhat excluded and isolated at this time because of work, restrictions, etc. Try to keep in touch with important people in your life as much as possible (without overdoing it!).
Keep healthy boundaries - Beware of the temptation to overwork and skip breaks because things are so busy. These are essential times for you to recharge to be able to give some more.
Watch out for excessive stress, fatigue, and sudden exhaustion - Look out for your stress levels worsening, feeling overwhelmed, feeling disconnected from your work and start finding looking after yourself harder as time goes on. Working on adrenaline for extended periods of time can also lead to a sudden onset of exhaustion. Do not blame yourself, as it is not your fault, rather reach out to your line manager/lead to get the support you need to get back on track.
Access supports - Make sure to use the supports available to you. Reach out to loved ones and friends for support. Your colleagues may also be a unique source of support at this time. If you feel like it would be useful to you at this time you may want to consider counseling or using other resources if you have access to an employee assistance program.
Values - Reconnecting to your values can be a helpful way to refocus on why you are doing what you are doing and how you want to do it. Taking a moment to reflect on what these are and how your life and what you are doing every day is matching up against these can help keep focus.
Trauma - Watch out for signs of trauma in yourself and reach out for help if you spot them. When we experience or witness traumatic events, it is common for most people to have some reaction in response to these. Trauma affects body, mind and your sense of self. Common reactions can include re-experiencing of the event, avoidance of any reminders of the trauma, negative changes in mood and thought patterns, feeling constantly on edge, over-reactive and having trouble sleeping among others. These symptoms can subside shortly after the events or can be persistent and interfere with your day to day life. Should this happen it is important that you reach out for help.
Finally, how about you take a moment to reflect each day: remind yourself of what you have achieved, how maybe you supported or connected with someone, or perhaps you did something to self-care. No matter how big or small, it’s important to celebrate your gains to help you stay well and hopeful about the future.