Although you may be at the hospital all day, you may feel guilty when you are not providing direct patient care. Or maybe you or someone on your team has an immunodeficiency and can’t be on the front line. Perhaps one of your team members contracted COVID-19 and you did not. Whatever the case, guilt is another emotion that is rampant among hospitalists right now, Dr. Barrett said.
Unfortunately, burnout is a potential reality in times of high stress. “Burnout is dynamic,” said Dr. Poorman. “It’s a process by which your emotional and cognitive reserves are exhausted. The people with the highest burnout are the ones who are still trying to provide the standard of care, or above the standard of care in dysfunctional systems.”
Dr. Harry noted that burnout presents in different ways for different people, but Dr. Rudolph added that it’s crucial for hospitalist team members to watch for signs of burnout so they can intervene and/or get help for their colleagues.
Warning signs in yourself or others that burnout could be on the horizon include:
- Fatigue/exhaustion – Whether emotional or physical (or both), this can become a problem if it “just doesn’t seem to go away despite rest and time away from work,” said Dr. Rudolph.
- Behavioral changes – Any behavior that’s out of the ordinary may be a red flag, like lashing out at someone at work.
- Overwork – Working too much can be caused by an inability to let go of patient care, Dr. Barrett said.
- Not working enough – This may include avoiding tasks and having difficulty meeting deadlines.
- Maladaptive coping behaviors – Excessive consumption of alcohol or drugs is a common coping mechanism. “Even excessive consumption of news is something that people are using to numb out a little bit,” said Dr. Harry.
- Depersonalization – “This is where you start to look at patients, colleagues, or administrators as ‘them’ and you can’t connect as deeply,” Dr. Harry said. “Part of that’s protective and a normal thing to do during a big trauma like this, but it’s also incredibly distancing. Any language that people start using that feels like ‘us’ or ‘them’ is a warning sign.”
- Disengagement – Many people disengage from their work, but Dr. Poorman said physicians tend to disengage from other parts of their lives, such as exercise and family interaction.
Protecting yourself while supporting others
Like the illustration of putting the oxygen mask on yourself first so you can help others, it’s important to protect your own mental and physical health as you support your fellow physicians. Here’s what the experts suggest.
Focus on basic needs
“When you’re in the midst of a trauma, which we are, you don’t want to open all of that up and go to the depths of your thoughts about the grief of all of it because it can actually make the trauma worse,” said Dr. Harry. “There’s a lot of literature that debriefing is really helpful after the event, but if you do it during the event, it can be really dangerous.”
Instead, she said, the goal should be focusing on your basic needs and what you need to do to get through each day, like keeping you and your family in good health. “What is your purpose? Staying connected to why you do this and staying focused on the present is really important,” Dr. Harry noted.
Do your best to get a good night’s sleep, exercise as much as you can, talk to others, and see a mental health provider if your anxiety is too high, advises Dr. Barrett. “Even avoiding blue light from phones and screens within 2 hours of bedtime, parking further away from the hospital and walking, and taking the stairs are things that add up in a big way.”
Keep up your normal routine
“Right now, it’s really critical for clinicians to keep up components of their routine that feel ‘normal,’ ” Dr. Rudolph said. “Whether it’s exercise, playing board games with their kids, or spending time on a hobby, it’s critical to allow yourself these comfortable, predictable, and rewarding detours.”
People under stress tend to find unhealthy ways to cope. Instead, try being intentional about what you are consuming by putting limits on things like your news, alcohol consumption, and the number of hours you work, said Dr. Harry.
Implement a culture of wellness
Dr. Barrett believes in creating the work culture we want to be in, one that ensures people have psychological safety, allows them to ask for help, encourages them to disconnect completely from work, and makes them feel valued and listened to. She likes the example of “the pause,” which is called by a team member right after a patient expires.
“It’s a 30-second moment of silence where we reflect on the patient, their loved ones, and every member of the health care team who helped support and treat them,” said Dr. Barrett. “At the conclusion, you say: ‘Thank you. Is there anything you need to be able to go back to the care of other patients?’ Because it’s unnatural to have this terrible thing that happened and then just act like nothing happened.”
Be proactive and know where to find resources before you need them, advised Dr. Harry. “Most institutions have free mental health resources, either through their employee assistance programs or HR, plus there’s lots of national organizations that are offering free resources to health care providers.”
Focus on what you can control
Separating what is under your control from what is not is a struggle for everyone, Dr. Poorman said, but it’s helpful to think about the ways you can have an impact and what you’re able to control.
“There was a woman who was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s that I heard giving an interview at the beginning of this pandemic,” she said. “It was the most helpful advice I got, which was: ‘Think of the next good thing you can do.’ You can’t fix everything, so what’s the next good thing you can do?”