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Prevea Health

Managing Stress for Health Care Workers during a Pandemic


Health care work is stressful, especially right now.

Working in the health care industry, regardless of the position, is stressful on a normal day. During a pandemic, health care workers are even more susceptible to increased stress due to:
  • Higher exposure to risk
  • Issues related to PPE (shortage, physical strain of PPE, etc.)
  • Changes in approach to care
  • Less ability to engage in social distancing at work
  • More focus on social distancing outside of work
  • Increase awareness/vigilance in work setting; pressure to know new procedures
  • Increased acuity in health care setting; increase in severity or poor outcome of cases
  • Sense of loss of control
  • Conflict between work and personal responsibility
In addition, health care workers experience increased stress because they are exposed to other people’s trauma and distress. This can build, causing secondary trauma (from exposure to another individual’s traumatic experience) or burnout (a feeling of extreme exhaustion and being overwhelmed).  

Signs of burnout

  • Sadness or apathy
  • Easily frustrated
  • Irritable/blaming others
  • Lacking feelings/indifferent
  • Poor self-care/seeking alcohol to cope

Signs of secondary trauma

  • Fear of something bad happening
  • Easily startled or on-guard
  • Nightmares or recurring thoughts
  • Physical signs of stress (racing heart, sweating, etc.)
Learn to recognize, respond and reduce stress. Knowing that you have stress and coping with it will allow you to stay well and allow you to continue helping those who are affected. 

Recognizing symptoms of stress

Responding to disasters can be both rewarding and stressful, so be realistic and reduce the stigma. Stress and compassion fatigue are not the result of problems with the individual, but are an occupational hazard that can affect anyone working in this environment. Acknowledging that everyone, including you, is susceptible to the effects of this environment can reduce your risk and increase your ability to cope. Pay attention to your mind and body. 
  • Emotional  - anxiety, depression, moodiness, irritability, loneliness, guilt and shame, hopelessness
  • Mental - difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, self-critical, rigid attitudes, distorted ideas
  • Physical - increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, numbness & tingling, migraines, upset stomach
  • Behavioral - difficulty sleeping, emotional outbursts, excessive drinking or eating, avoidance,  inactivity

Responding to Stress

  • Control what you are able to control, and don’t spend time dwelling on what you cannot control. Remind yourself of what you are doing to help control the spread. “I am not putting myself or those around me in danger. I am trusting others to do their jobs.” 
  • Get information from reliable sources:
  • Set limits on your media consumption - avoid having television, radio or other media run continuously in the background. Schedule specific times to check in on the news and set limits on how long you watch or consume news.
  • Determine what can reasonably be changed inside and outside of work.
    • Adopt a systemic problem solving approach
    • Define your problem specifically
    • Break it down into manageable components
    • Gain support for ideas and changes
    • Work on solutions
    • Evaluate and rework as needed
  • Keep lines of communication open with your coworkers. If you are social distancing, consider using digital platforms like Zoom or social chat groups. Make sure you do not share confidential information in these types of communications.
  • Maintain contact with your supervisor.
  • Use appropriate communication skills such as “I” statements, listening, and restating.
  • Avoid the herd mentality. Anxiety can be contagious – try to avoid getting caught up in others’ distress.

Reducing the impact of stress

  • Recognize and accept your own feelings.
  • At home
    • Develop an action plan that works for you and your family.
    • Set realistic expectations especially if you have to balance having children at home or other responsibilities. Make decisions about what is right for you and your loved ones and focus on what you can control, as opposed to what you can’t control. It is ok to allow for things to be different, and less than perfect. We can instead strive to create a plan and routine that is good enough. Adopting a “dare-to-be-average” mind-set will allow for some personal forgiveness as you and your family navigate changes. Ask yourself, did schoolwork get done? Did work get done? Did you engage in self-care? The answer to these questions should be, “Yes, as best as I could today.”
  • At work
    • Take time out for basic cares such as bathroom breaks and drinking plenty of water.
    • Remind yourself it is not selfish to take a break. The needs of others are not more important than your own needs and well-being. Working all of the time does not mean you will make your best contributions or decisions. There are other people who can help in the crisis. 
    • Make sure you are self-monitoring and pacing yourself.
    • Limit the amount of time you work alone during times of crisis.
      • Work in teams if possible.
      • Develop a buddy system where two of you work together to support each other and monitor reach other’s stress, workload, and safety.
      • Use peer consultation and supervision when available.
      • Get to know your team. Talk about background, interests, hobbies, and family. Identify each other’s strengths and weaknesses. 
    • If you hear rumors, seek out accurate information from your supervisor.
    • Take deep breaths.
    • Engage in helpful self-talk (i.e., “I am helping others,” and “This will pass.”).

Engage in self-care activities

  • Ensure you are getting enough rest, eating a balanced diet and getting routine exercise.
  • Take time for hobbies or interests you previously enjoyed but didn’t have time to do.
  • Employ the use of calming, centering and meditative skills. Click here for some calming and mindfulness resources.

Seek professional help when needed

If your mental health is being impacted by the stress of COVID-19, please reach out to your primary care physician who can help connect you with therapy resources. Many things are changing in the field of mental health and telemedicine or phone visits may be an option.