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Managing Burnout During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By: Kendall Dean


Over the past 20 to 30 years, burnout has become more of a pressing problem for workers, most notably for healthcare workers. We know that burnout involves stressors, and being in the midst of a global pandemic certainly is a significant stressor. One of these stressors is moral distress. Moral distress is a facet of burnout often caused by facing situations in which a provider knows the ethically “correct” action to take but feels that the actions they are asked to perform conflict with that ethically “correct” action. In the past, retrospective studies have been conducted to evaluate healthcare workers' levels of burnout after events that have put an abnormally large strain on the healthcare system. This includes events such as Hurricane Katrina and the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Project COPE has put together a survey to evaluate the wellbeing of healthcare workers while in the midst of the SARS-Cov2 pandemic, rather than investigating after the fact. Part of Project COPE’s survey has evaluated individuals' perceived burnout levels and methods of adjusting to additional stress. 


Having surveyed healthcare workers for the past 7 months, Project COPE has noticed that healthcare workers, whether they see patients or not, are experiencing comparable levels of moral distress.

Table1.The frequency of moral distress for workers seeing patients is similar to those not seeing patients - only varying at the lower frequencies of experiencing distress, once a week or less to never. 


We have seen that levels of moral distress may not vary significantly, but with over a third of Project COPE’s respondents in both categories saying they experience moral distress more than 2-3 times per week, what can be done to combat this phenomenon?


Project COPE has asked its respondents to mention the ways they combat moral distress. In Figure 1, we see that many healthcare workers find themselves coping with the stress of their jobs by staying social, exercising, and feeling like their work is meaningful, among other methods.

Figure 1. Coping methods used by Project COPE’s participants.


While managing stressors that stem from work may be difficult, there are many resources to help providers cope. Staying social and contacting loved ones is a great reminder that we all have value and worth outside of our work (besides being uplifting and fun!). Call a friend you haven’t spoken with in a while, FaceTime with your family, or host a virtual game night via Zoom. Exercising is another great way to stave off the stress of work. There are so many ways to get a great workout from the comforts of your home with the instruction of a YouTube fitness guru or through a hosted fitness class from the local gym. Get creative and take a moment to get outside and do what you love with the people you love, whether in person or virtually! 


If you or a loved one is struggling with suicidal thoughts or plans, please know that you have value and there are many people who want to listen and help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number is: 1-800-273-8255.

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