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COVID-19 Burnout, Compassion Fatigue, and Health Care Workers

In the Spring of 2020, I was working full-time as a support worker, was in school full time and was volunteering for two non-profits. The excessive demands of my work quickly began to take a toll on me. I was in over my head, constantly working with little to no time for myself. I was exhausted all the time, even on nights when I got eight hours. I found myself easily irritated, angry, unable to be compassionate and worst of all, depressed. Each day became a means to an end.

Unfortunately, I was not alone in my struggle as many care aids and caring health workers suffer with mental and emotional pandemic exhaustion. They continue to work to exhaustion while putting themselves at risk for infection daily. Alongside regular duties, new protective work protocols require energy and vigilance to implement, on top of the inevitable daily occurrence of either losing a patient, handling a violent patient, managing the families of patients, or coping with managing a patient who lives with a disability.

With the rise of COVID-19, dependency on caregivers increased and the medical complexity of patient cases too. As the patient numbers rise, the emotional toll becomes exhausting. The lack of rest and individual time make coping with emotional and physical exhaustion extremely difficult. When the days go by filled with denied rest, self-perception starts to decline, negative emotions and behaviours begin to occur. As the job's stress becomes overbearing, you may start to no longer find pleasure in your work

Finally, caregivers may not receive the same benefits as a nurse or doctor who works for a hospital or an organization. Private family caregivers may miss the opportunities for breaks such as days off, respite care, and benefits, like access to counselling. These multiple intense stressors, exhaustion, and reduced resources can prompt enduring feelings of fatigue and distress.

Burnout has been a common psychological experience for many generations throughout many cultures and jobs. It is one's response to working in adverse conditions that have caused prolonged physical and emotional stress. Symptoms of burnout generally include: 1) decreased energy 2) decreased interest in work 3) feelings of negativity or ‘not caring’ about the work 4) decreased effectiveness or ability to do the work. The frequency of burnout is one reason in itself why it is frequently overlooked in the workplace. The overworked and even the underworked are at risk for burnout.

Compassion fatigue is where individuals who were once empathetic, compassionate, and hopeful begin to experience helplessness, emptiness, and sometimes depression. In essence, the exhaustion comes from carrying the emotional stress and burden of someone else on your shoulders taking their emotional pains. Caregivers and healthcare professionals most commonly experience compassion fatigue as they develop close working relationships and detailed awareness of their patients personal stressors.

Compassion fatigue and burnout can go hand in hand; there is often overlap in symptoms between the two, making it difficult to differentiate. However, a critical distinction from burnout is the experience of second-hand traumatic stress. Often, caregivers and health care professionals take on their patients' trauma and emotions, creating psychological stress. In contrast, the signs and symptoms of burnout result from external stressors, such as excessive work and little time for rest.

As a support worker, a step I took to prevent myself from experiencing further burnout and compassion fatigue was intentionally choosing one new activity daily. For example, I would choose to do a 15-minute mindful walk. Other days, I'd choose a new exercise form. By doing this, I was taking a step in prioritizing myself and my daily self-care. Also, I found this time to be helpful with reflecting on my needs both emotionally and physically.

I also learned that to avoid burnout and compassion fatigue, you have to put yourself first. If that means saying no at times, it is important because your mental health matters more. Take the time you and your body and mind need to rest. Some simple ways to start prioritizing yourself could be by saying something you're grateful for, going to bed a little earlier, eating healthier food, and enjoying the fresh air, even if it's for a few minutes. I like to read a chapter a day of my favourite novel.

Here are some other tips to help lower the risk of burnout.

1. Stress Management Programs: Where possible, get involved in any stress management programs offered within the workplace that equip workers with coping strategies to reduce burnout and maintain healthier outlooks. Some workplaces also have employee assistance programs for short-term support. For Health BC health care workers, the new COVID mental health site,, might be helpful.

Sometimes getting involved in stress management programs can be challenging. Therefore, a great alternative is setting aside time for a relaxing activity, such as taking a break outside when you sense yourself starting to get wound up or taking a few minutes to meditate and re-ground yourself.

2. Good Health Behaviours: Maintaining a healthy diet, regular exercise, a consistent sleep schedule, and time for self-care.

Remember to take the time to do things you love; read the book you’ve been dying to read or paint your nails your favourite colour. Do something special just for you.

3. Good Social Support: Besides taking care of yourself, it is essential to have a strong support system -- to have family and friends to rely on, seek help from, and trust. Lean on to your family and friends. Maybe go for a coffee date and rekindle an old friendship.

4. Seek Help: Seek out professional help for non-judgmental and empathetic support and to learn new skills. Don’t hesitate to reach out to mental health professionals if you need-your mental health matters.

5. Work Management: Ideally, employers would allow worker input to reduce stress and allow a sense of control to decrease the risk of burnout. Look for ways to further empower yourself by finding out your rights. Talk to your boss, union, or organization about the supports you need. Take control of the small things you can, such as bringing your favourite lunch or a cup of tea to work, taking the allotted breaks, limiting overtime, and communicating with your coworkers to build allies and connections.

A great resource to learn from on how to be compassionate towards yourself is from The Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare on caring for yourself and others during this pandemic.

For more mental health resources, you can also check out our page for Healthcare workers and our other helpful articles and videos related to Covid stress in the Covid and Wellness section of our webpage.


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