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Compassion Fatigue and Burnout Among Healthcare Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Currently, healthcare workers are experiencing ongoing stress, burnout, and immense compassion fatigue amidst multiple waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. While burnout rates have continued to climb throughout the course of the pandemic, the need to protect the mental health of our valued healthcare workers is at an all-time high.

Throughout this article, we will explore the causes behind burnout and compassion fatigue among healthcare workers, the unique challenges that COVID-19 presents, and what can be done moving forward to promote better health within this community.

Understanding Burnout and Compassion Fatigue

Burnout is defined as a negative symptom related to chronic workplace stress. When exposed to a stressful work environment where your mental health is not managed appropriately, you’re more likely to express 3 characteristic symptoms of burnout.

  1. Emotional exhaustion: this dimension of burnout is very common in the healthcare industry. Emotional exhaustion may also be described as being worn out, lacking energy, physically and mentally depleted, or fatigued.
  2. Cynicism or depersonalization: when experiencing burnout, you may express feelings of cynicism or depersonalization towards your job or within your role. In other words, you may experience a negative or inappropriate attitude towards patients or clients, loss of idealism, and even complete withdrawal from the job.
  3. Diminished professional achievement: feelings of ineffectiveness, lack of accomplishment, or diminished professional achievement can all play a significant role in your current work environment. With burnout comes low productivity and an inability to cope with the tasks that once seemed simple.

In the healthcare industry, burnout is closely related to compassion fatigue. As a cost of caring for others day in and day out, many healthcare workers face vicarious or secondary trauma from carrying the weight of their patients’ pain and distress. In time, compassion fatigue can cause emotional and physical exhaustion that may lead to a reduced ability to empathize with others.

Factors that Lead to Burnout and Compassion Fatigue

Among the different factors that contribute to burnout and compassion fatigue, the majority fall into two distinct categories.

Workplace Factors

Your work environment is a key player in the stress you carry as an individual. Some of the main contributors to burnout or compassion fatigue in the workplace include:

  • Workload (i.e. working back-to-back shifts or prolonged hours without adequate rest or support)
  • Workplace conflict or unfair work dynamics
  • Lack of control
  • Unclear job expectations
  • Lack of social support

Personal Factors

Although work is a major cause of burnout and compassion fatigue, the added stress of other personal factors can intensify these symptoms. Common personal matters that may contribute to burnout include:

  • Lack of work-life balance
  • Having to support or provide for a family (i.e. children, parents, family members with disability, etc.)
  • Struggles with substance abuse and/or mental health
  • Dealing with divorce or interpersonal and relationship conflict

How Burnout Manifests Itself and What It Looks Like in the Day to Day

Although burnout or compassion fatigue may look different from one person to another, it’s very common to manifest itself as a mental health condition. Many people who struggle with burnout may also present symptoms of anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In addition, burnout can have a myriad of physical manifestations including changes in appetite, sleep disturbances, lack of motivation for previously enjoyed tasks, and so much more.

Burnout Rates in Healthcare Workers

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, burnout rates in healthcare were considerably high. The latest research in Canada has presented severe burnout to be found in 20-40% of healthcare workers. Unsurprisingly, this rate has increased throughout the pandemic. By the spring of 2021, rates of burnout were found to reach over 60%. As these rates continue to climb, healthcare burnout is anticipated to persist long after the pandemic.

Factors Unique to COVID-19

With rising rates of burnout and compassion fatigue trending within the healthcare sector, it’s helpful to recognize the different factors unique to COVID-19 that have caused a significant surge in rates.

Increased Number of In-Patients

With rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, hospitals have become overwhelmed with sick patients requiring care. Since December of 2020, epidemiological trends have displayed over 50,000 more hospitalizations with numbers continuing to climb. This influx has caused healthcare staff to take on a greater workload than ever before.

Staff Shortages

Understaffing has become a considerable issue throughout this pandemic. With ongoing staff shortages, the burden on current healthcare providers continues to grow as there are more positions to fill with fewer staff available to assist.

Social Isolation

One of the more significant factors that has affected the health of numerous healthcare providers is social isolation. Many hospital staff were unable to work from home, and at times, were forced to isolate from friends and family to minimize the spread.

Devastating Loss and Death

Although healthcare providers are professionals, they are also humans who can experience immense sadness for the loss of their patients. With respect to the COVID-19 pandemic, the devastation of death has impacted the mental health and well-being of so many involved in this industry.

Fear for Personal Safety

Since being exposed to more symptomatic and asymptomatic cases while on the job, healthcare workers face the stress of falling ill with COVID-19 themselves. While most hospitals have protocols and PPE safety gear in place to protect their staff, the uncertainty of this virus contributes to greater stress in healthcare workers.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Recognizing burnout or compassion fatigue in yourself or your loved ones is an essential first step towards managing the problem. If you’re unsure if you’re expressing symptoms of burnout, allow yourself to take a step back and assess your current mental health. By listening to what your body needs and giving yourself adequate rest, you may notice a sense of relief, both mentally and physically.

The next step towards recovering from burnout or compassion fatigue is to utilize support. From peer-to-peer consultations, coaching sessions, and other wellness support programs, there are excellent resources to help you through this.

Counselling for Burnout and Compassion Fatigue

Counselling is an important resource for everyone impacted by the current global pandemic, especially healthcare and frontline workers. Through counselling, therapists work to assist you with burnout and compassion fatigue by helping you clearly recognize the source of stress and then work through personalized management strategies.

Of course, counselling is beneficial for those struggling to manage their symptoms, it also helps those who are on the cusp of entering into burnout. At On Your Mind Counselling, our team of experienced professionals can help you identify the root of the problem even before it begins to spill over into your home and personal life. For more information, book a free consultation today!

Written by Laura Anderson BA, MA, MSW, RSW

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