Working in healthcare has always been one of the most physically and emotionally demanding jobs, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made it almost impossible even for the most dedicated medical staff to cope with stress. Ever since the first wave hit the UK in March 2020, doctors and nurses have been continually pushed to their breaking point, and there are many cases of workers who were unable to take at least one day off because of the massive influx of new cases. A higher rate of burnout among health workers is an alarming, but anticipated consequence. According to a report published in July by the Society of Occupational Medicine, factors such as lack of support, high emotional demands, staff shortages, and having to make morally challenging choices has generated record levels of stress for doctors and nurses across the UK, leading to burnout and even PTSD.
Burnout is often confused for chronic fatigue, but it’s more serious than that and includes many other symptoms. The term “burnout” was coined in the 1970s and defined as a state of severe exhaustion on physical, mental, and emotional levels.
Although it can appear in everyone, including mothers and fathers, burnout is mostly known for being career-induced. Usually, burnout starts from a need or desire to do your best and push yourself to work harder – a situation that all health workers have encountered this year. But if working hard isn’t followed by a period of rest, as is often the case with healthcare workers, that leads to neglecting their personal needs, displacement of conflicts, depersonalisation, withdrawal, and depression.
Left untreated, burnout can lead to social and emotional issues, preventing health workers from connecting with their families and friends. They can feel anxious, nervous, irritable, have trouble sleeping, and withdraw themselves from the activities they used to love. In advanced cases, burnout can also weaken the body’s defences, causing headaches, digestive issues, and frequent illness.
Unlike normal fatigue, burnout does not go away after a good night’s sleep. Managing it requires lifestyle changes, adapting the workplace schedule, and professional counselling. Although burnout isn’t exclusive to one industry, health workers are at a higher risk because they have been dealing with intense levels of pressure in the past months.
Burnout might seem an inevitable part of life for healthcare workers, but it doesn’t have to be like this. Doctors, nurses, and other health workers are essential, and they should not be treated as if they were disposable, and showing gratitude and appreciation starts by offering them a positive work environment where their needs are met, and their voices are listened to.
Most health workers understand the scale of the current healthcare crisis and are on board with long working hours and no vacation days, if that means saving the lives of hundreds of people. However, they are more prone to burning out if, in addition to working around the clock, they also have to endure inhumane working conditions. Supporting health workers in these challenging times means much more than offering them free snacks and other symbolic workplace perks; it also means offering them a clean working environment, enough PPE, removing bureaucratic barriers, and encouraging a supportive environment where everyone’s voice is heard. Health workers want to see management get involved too, and share their concerns with the authorities.
If burnout is addressed in the early stages, you can manage it by yourself, by making small lifestyle changes. However, many health workers are unable to do so and realise they need help when they’ve already gone through visible physical and emotional changes. When that happens, it’s important to talk to a specialist who understands the challenges of working in healthcare and guide you towards healing.
As a doctor, you’re probably used to being the one who offers help, not the one who receives it. But now more than ever, you deserve to talk about the ways that work has affected your personal life and cope with all these challenges in a healthy way.
Authorities and NGOs have been quick to acknowledge the growing prevalence of burnout among healthcare staff and have started special projects aimed at supporting their mental health. Whether you’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately or you just want to prevent burnout, ask your employer if they can help you with mental health resources, such as free access to therapy, dedicated phone support, access to meditation apps, and so on.
Although burnout might seem unavoidable, it can actually be prevented, and it all starts with strengthening your body. During periods of intense physical and mental stress, your body needs healthy fuel to keep it going. A cup of black coffee and an energy bar might keep you going for another hour but, for long-term resilience, you need to try and have a balanced diet as much as possible. That includes a lot of water, fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and foods rich in Omega-3 and fibres. You should also include in your diet foods that promote brain health, such as avocados, bananas, green tea, carrots, fatty fish, and Greek yoghurt. Avoid eating fast-food, takeout, and sugary sweets, and if you feel the need to snack, choose healthier alternatives such as vegetable chips, seeds, nuts, and oat bars.
Apart from eating right, try to exercise for at least 30 minutes every day. Exercise releases tension in a healthy way, reduces stress, and releases endorphins. According to the World Health Organization, you don’t necessarily need to work out in the traditional way to feel these benefits. Any form of physical activity that burns calories helps, including gardening, cleaning, or playing with your pets.
And last but not least, try to practice good sleeping habits. Ideally, you should be getting between seven and eight hours of sleep every night, and go to bed and wake up at around the same time. If you’re having trouble falling asleep, meditation exercises and deep breathing techniques can help you relax and clear your mind.