A recent study found that personal exposure to the novel coronavirus – i.e. coming into contact with someone who has either tested positive or is exhibiting symptoms – is linked to poor mental health. These people are almost twice as likely to feel as if “difficulties are piling up so high that they cannot overcome them,” and often experience a mix of reactions to the exposure, such as feeling dazed and numb, nervous and lonely.
When I came across this story, I immediately thought about employee burnout, a syndrome that is common for caregivers in long-term care settings, and one that the WHO declared an “occupational phenomenon” just last year. Cited symptoms include decreased energy, lack of job satisfaction, lower productivity and absenteeism. Physical symptoms like headaches and stomach issues can also manifest themselves. And some take to abusing alcohol and drugs as a form of escapism.
The stress brought on by the presence of the virus, compounded with already high rates of burnout, could lead to a potentially disastrous situation for those on the front lines.
What’s more, compassion fatigue or “the natural consequence of stress resulting from caring for and helping the traumatized or suffering people,” has also been trending high. Nurses and aides are witnessing their residents get sick with the virus, live in fear of virus, and in some cases, lose their battle with the virus. Not to mention, many residents are incredibly lonely from lack of interaction with other residents and visits from family members. Dementia patients have been particularly impacted, often displaying characteristics of being confused and disoriented as they and those around them are required to wear masks during therapy and when moving throughout the community. This in turn causes greater stress for their caregivers.
Symptoms of compassion fatigue are similar to those of burnout, with depression, and even PTSD, being present in some cases. I can’t imagine how helpless and discouraged caregivers must feel at times, and unfortunately many of them are probably experiencing both burnout and compassion fatigue at once.
I recently sat on a webinar with my colleague, Samantha Jones, who is a Clinical Therapist and Senior Living Operator. She explained that with the onset of the COVID-19, caregivers are facing a whole new set of challenges:
- Fear for their own health, the health of their loved ones, as well as residents & coworkers
- Staying up to date & adhering to constant protocol changes
- The burden of new staffing challenges as their coworkers leave out of fear
- Stress from not having enough PPE
That’s why it's important that caregivers make it a priority to take extra care of themselves during this time. As I've said before, providing quality care for others starts with caring for yourself.
Here are some of the strategies shared during the webinar that can help caregivers combat burnout, compassion fatigue and the added stress of the pandemic.
- Breathing Exercises – Taking some time to focus on the simple act of breathing has many benefits. It detoxifies the body, helps with digestion, lowers blood pressure, releases calming endorphins and more. Jones recommends the 4-4-4 method she uses throughout the day. Take a deep breath in for 4 seconds, hold it for 4 seconds and exhale slowly for 4 seconds. Here are some other breathing exercises to try.
- Setting Boundaries – Those that go into senior care do so because they have that caring spirit and love to help others. And because of that, pulling yourself away from providing that care at the end of the day is often challenging. While going above and beyond to ensure residents are happy and healthy is always encouraged, time away and letting work go at the end of a shift is critical. While you may be tempted to pick up that extra shift when someone calls off, check in with yourself first. Saying “no” when your own wellbeing is at risk is one of the most important parts of setting boundaries and avoiding burnout.
- Physical Exercise – Exercising improves sleep, protects against heart disease and diabetes and lowers blood pressure. Plus, it releases endorphins in your brain. Jones recommends finding an activity you enjoy – even low intensity exercise can benefit your brain!
- Practicing Gratitude – Making gratitude part of our daily lives can improve sleep, lower stress and release dopamine and serotonin, chemicals in our brains that promote happiness. Practicing gratitude can be as simple as journaling before bed or writing a quick thank-you note to a friend or colleague. Here are some easy ways to integrate gratitude into your life.
- Employee Assistance Program Resources – Make sure all staff are aware of the services offered through your EAP, such as access to mental health counseling. Many providers are hosting activities to support employees during this time, like weekly mindfulness training sessions and guided meditation courses.
Providers can do their part to help by encouraging open communication between managers and employees about the challenges they are facing. Encourage employees to openly discuss these challenges and work together to develop solutions. And data in our software shows that providers are doing just that. Since the onset of the pandemic, we saw a 28% increase in messages sent in OnShift Schedule from management to staff to keep them up to date on safety protocols, PPE and more; as well as to provide words of encouragement. In OnShift Engage, we saw a 300% increase in the number of surveys sent to staff, asking them to share their concerns and how COVID-19 has impacted them personally. They are then taking what they learn and implementing perks and programs to help such as childcare assistance, extra uniforms and access to more scheduling flexibility.
I will wrap up with a personal story. Although I can’t relate to what frontline workers are going through right now, I can recall a time when working as an administrator that I became burned out. I was working around the clock, arriving home after 9:00 pm, often to only continue working. In fact, I was on the phone so often when I was home with my family, that my daughter, who was three at the time, would walk around with her toy phone stuck to her ear, pretending to be me.
At this time, I was also caring for my disabled mother and my family and had no time for my own personal hobbies like gardening and reading. I dreaded going into work, not because I did not love what I was doing, but because I never got to take a break from it and focus on myself. I began to interact differently with coworkers, who took note and began to not enjoy working with me.
Then one day, I took a hard look at my situation and made a promise to myself to better balance my work and my personal life. Everything changed. I became more present with my family, took up my old hobbies and most importantly, began taking care of myself. With some time and practice, self-care strategies really do make a huge difference. My relationships flourished, I was a better performer at work, and I was all-around a happier, more patient person. I encourage you to talk to your staff about the importance of self-care and to implement the practice for yourselves.