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COVID-19 & Compassion Fatigue: Combatting The Perfect Storm

Covid And Compassion Fatigue - Combatting The Perfect Storm (1)I was reminded of just how long we’ve been under the grips of COVID-19 the other day. OnShift CEO Mark Woodka has been sending daily emails about a wide variety of topics to the entire OnShift team to help us stay connected and in good spirits while we are apart. Last week, on #ThrowbackThursday, he shared the email he sent to the company at the onset of the pandemic, telling us he was closing the office for the next few weeks. I think that the majority of us were fairly confident we would be back to work and life as we knew it in that proposed time frame. Boy, were we wrong.

This email not only served as a reminder of how lucky I am to work for a company that saw the risks and immediately took action to keep us safe, but reminded me of the serious, unprecedented nature of this virus and the fact that no one saw it coming.

Whether or not you thought the virus would be this serious, here we are – and I can safely say that the entire world has been impacted in some way. However, arguably one of the most impacted groups are the front-line caregivers and those they serve. These folks don’t have the option to work remotely, but bravely show up shift after shift to care for those most vulnerable to the virus. Plus, they’re experiencing the hardships the rest of us are – not being able to see family and friends, travel or venture outside the house without fear and uncertainty. Although similar in some ways, their pandemic experience, and the sacrifices they have made, is very different from ours. I just hope they know how truly appreciated they are.

Just the other day I was reading through some of the comments on Ohio’s Governor Mike DeWine’s coronavirus updates. Many of the responses to his regular tweets were from healthcare workers expressing how exhausted, worn out and dispirited they are.

COVID fatigue, or a general sense of being tired of life during the pandemic, has come up in many of my conversations as of late. And experts say that this new phenomenon will be with us until a vaccine has been distributed and things return to some semblance of normal. 

By definition, COVID fatigue is a complex of emotions that include boredom, loneliness, sadness, frustration, anxiety, fear, anger, and resentment, all brought on by the loss of activities and social relations produced by pandemic restriction. This has led many to abandon the caution they’ve practiced over the past several months, which we know is contributing to the rise in cases across the country, and the rest of the world.

While I understand their frustration, now is not the time to throw in the towel. We must continue to be diligent to stop the spread and prevent overwhelming healthcare institutions. Especially since our healthcare workers are already exhausted from working long hours to save those who have fallen ill.

They’ve grown tired of pandemic life just like the general population, but they're also witnessing the devastating effects it can have on the vulnerable on a daily basis. The fact that this group was already prone to compassion fatigue under pre-pandemic circumstances makes the situation even more dire.

According to Dr. Chelsia Harris, executive director of Lipscomb’s School of Nursing, compassion fatigue is defined as the physical, emotional and spiritual result of chronic self-sacrifice and/or prolonged exposure to difficult situations that renders a person unable to love, nurture, care for or empathize with another’s suffering.

Harris points out that burnout is often mistaken for compassion fatigue, but that its triggers and symptoms are much different. “Burnout is believed to be caused by increased workplace demands, increasing healthcare expectations in general, lack of resources, interpersonal stressors and organizational policy leading to diminished caring, cynicism and ineffectiveness,” she explains.

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Harris says that the unprecedented nature of the virus is taking a serious toll on those caring for the sick. “We have to think about this as completely different because there is the component of not only healthcare providers being exposed to an excessive amount of trauma and suffering, which is typically what leads to compassion fatigue, the longevity of the exposure of trauma and the actual severity of that trauma, but this also has an additional component which is a fear of the unknown.”

She continues, “What is the capacity of this virus? What does it do? If there is going to be a vaccine, when will that come? That is just an added component to the entire equation this time. And then some of the things these healthcare providers are seeing is traumatic.”  

Harris recommends caregivers implement coping strategies such as work-life balance and taking multiple days off at a time, getting adequate sleep, eating a nutritious diet and regularly exercising, and keeping up with hobbies or even taking up new ones.

Equally important, Harris says, is having a supportive work environment. Here are some tactics management can use to help combat compassion fatigue at the community level.

  • Discuss compassion fatigue during meetings to keep the warning signs top of mind and teach intervention tactics.
  • Regularly thank caregivers for their care and commitment. This can be done with a public acknowledgement, a note or even a small gift such as some company swag or a gift card.
  • Hold trainings to teach staff how to set boundaries and practice self-care to prevent compassion fatigue.
  • Encourage timeouts, where caregivers can take a few minutes away during stressful and tough moments to breathe and reflect. If possible, rotate the care of high-stress patients when feasible.
  • Gather staff to debrief and offer support to one another after difficult shifts.

Harris also recommends equipping staff members’ family and friends with some tips for support. She points out, for example, while it’s okay to ask about their workday, they should understand they might not want to relive it and go into detail. “I would challenge those with friends and family who are healthcare providers to create moments that fill them back up, that bring them joy,” she explains, “Give them an outlet that’s not job-related.”

You can learn more about compassion fatigue and strategies for combatting it here.

I hope you are able to put a few of these practices into place to better support your hardworking, heroic caregivers. The vaccine trial results that have come out over the past few weeks give me hope that this nightmare will be over sooner rather than later. But until then, please know how much all of us at OnShift appreciate all you have done, are doing and will continue to do to care for residents.

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