5 Ways to Navigate Burnout During the COVID-19 Pandemic

managing burnout

Will healthcare workers experience an increase in burnout due to the COVID-19 outbreak?

You bet.

As healthcare workers deal with the marathon of treating patients diagnosed with the virus—all while coping with limited resources—making plans to manage burnout and supporting the physical, mental, and emotional health of healthcare workers is imperative.

Preparing for Battle

We can’t ignore the fact that the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, is reshaping our way of living. Cities and states nationwide have initiated stay-at-home orders, and nonessential businesses, restaurants, and public schools across the country have closed their doors.

While many businesses have shut down, hospitals are preparing for an influx of patients with COVID-19. Elective procedures are being canceled, and nurses and other healthcare providers have been cross-training in preparation for the rush of new patients.

“I work in endoscopy, where most procedures are elective. To be proactive, we are starting to cross-train in different areas like emergency, urgent care, or phone triage. That way we’ve been oriented and can support the staff in those departments when they get slammed.” —Anna Rodriguez, BSN, RN, PCCN, CCRN

What Is Burnout?

Burnout is a psychological syndrome that involves a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job.1 Symptoms of burnout include:

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Cynicism
  • Decreased self-efficacy

Research shows a myriad of causes contributing to the development of burnout. Burnout is also impacted by personality factors and coping styles.2

Major work factors in burnout include:

  • Unmanageable workload
  • Lack of autonomy
  • Decreased social support
  • Insufficient rewards
  • Unfairness and injustice
  • Value conflicts3

Those who experience burnout may deal with personal outcomes such as increased cold and flu episodes, chronic fatigue, and sleep disturbances.4

As far as mental health goes, burnout can be a stepping stone for depression. Work performance may suffer, and presenteeism (physically at work but not functioning at full capacity) may present as a risk factor for further emotional exhaustion.5

Burnout in physicians and nurses is associated with an increase in medical errors and patient mortality rate.6 Additionally, patient satisfaction and quality of care decline.4 Burnout means greater worker turnover rates, costing organizations millions of dollars each year.7

Interested in more free COVID-19 resources, similar to the video above? Visit our resource hub to access free courses, articles, and educational videos. 

Managing Burnout Amid the COVID-19 Outbreak

Practice these five tips to help keep burnout at bay:

1. Make sure the basics are covered.

What do you need in order to do your job well? In the case of COVID-19, you need personal protective equipment (PPE) when working with patients. You also need the proper tools, materials, and equipment for your patients, adequate staffing ratios, and sufficient breaks, as well as food and water while on the job.

The essentials may be difficult to come by these days, but they’re important because they serve as the foundation to keep you safe and performing at your best.8 My wellness community, Joy Energy Time, has released free patient break cards with different ideas to ensure you have restorative rest breaks.

2. Access mental health and social support.

Does your organization have an employee assistance program? If so, take advantage of their services. Seek out or continue to visit (virtually, of course) a licensed mental health professional. Moreover, humans are social beings. Don’t forget about social support, especially in this period of social distancing. Set up regular daily or weekly check-in calls, texts, or video conferences with friends, family, and loved ones.

There are a lot of emotions going on right now, and everything you feel is valid. You’re not alone. Seeking mental health support can help you get through these extraordinary times.

3. Transparency and communication are key.

With fast-paced changes occurring in healthcare, two-way communication between management and employees is necessary. Employees should be kept in the loop of what’s going on. Management must take note of what employees need most right now and should survey them to assess their top priorities and concerns. Hold a mindfulness huddle with your team before your shift and/or a debriefing huddle at the end of your shift.

4. Reframe your mindset.

Locus of control (LOC) refers to how inclined someone is to believe that they have control over their life circumstances. Nurses with high external LOC experience greater job stress,9,10 while internal LOC is correlated with increased well-being, performance, and confidence in solving work problems.

Implement mini mindful moments throughout the day to check in with yourself and observe how you are handling challenges at work. Do you tend to give up or do you make plans to problem solve?

5. Show appreciation and spread humor.

You and your team members are going into overtime, so frequent acts of kindness go a long way: a simple “thank you” to the coworker who helped you out, surprise-ordering a round of coffee for the team, organizing the supply closet, air-fiving each other, or doing a “foot-shake” video for TikTok.

Doing small helpful acts, showing appreciation, and incorporating humor when possible will lift everyone’s spirits.11

Burnout is more than problematic for individuals—it also hurts patients and organizations. Now more than ever, healthcare workers and teams must all unite to put strategies in place to reduce burnout so we can keep workers and patients healthy during this pandemic and beyond.

  1. Maslach, C. & Leiter M. P. (2017). New insights into burnout and health care: strategies for improving civility and alleviating burnout. Medical Teacher, 39(2), 160–163.
  2. Geuens, N., Braspenning, M., Van Bogaert, P., & Franck, E. (2015). Individual vulnerability to burnout in nurses: the role of Type D personality within different nursing specialty areas. Burnout Research, 2 (2–3), 80–86.
  3. Leiter, M. P. & Maslach, C. (2003). Areas of worklife: a structured approach to organizational predictors of job burnout. Research in Occupational Stress and Well Being, 3, 91–134.
  4. Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2017). Understanding burnout. In C. L. Cooper & J. Campbell Quick (Eds.), The Handbook of Stress and Health: A Guide to Research and Practice, 36–56. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell.
  5. Baeriswyl, S., Krause, A., Elfering, A., & Berset, M. (2016). How workload and coworker support relate to emotional exhaustion: the mediating role of sickness presenteeism. International Journal of Stress Management. Advance online publication.
  6. Dyrbye, L. N., Shanafelt, T. D., Sinsky, C. A., Cipriano, P. F., Bhatt, J., Ommaya, A., West, C.P., & Meyers, D. (2017). Burnout among health care professionals: a call to explore and address this underrecognized threat to safe, high-quality care. NAM Perspectives. Discussion Paper, National Academy of Medicine, Washington, DC. Retrieved from https://nam.edu/Burnout-Among-Health-Care-Professionals.
  7. NSI Nursing Solutions, Inc. (2020). 2020 National Healthcare Retention and RN Staffing Report. Retrieved from https://www.nsinursingsolutions.com/Documents/Library/NSI_National_Health_Care_Retention_Report.pdf
  8. Gallup. (2017). State of the American Workplace 2017 (Report). Retrieved from https://www.gallup.com/workplace/238085/state-american-workplace-report-2017.aspx
  9. Hou, N., Doerr, A., Johnson, B. A., & Chen, P. Y. (2017). Locus of control. In C. L. Cooper & J. Campbell Quick (Eds.), The Handbook of Stress and Health: A Guide to Research and Practice, 283­–298. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell.
  10. Khoshouei, M.S. (2017). Prediction of procrastination considering job characteristics and locus of control in nurses. Journal of Holistic Nursing and Midwifery, 27(2), 27–35.
  11. Gupta, S., Paterson, M. L., Lysaght, R. M., & von Zweck, C. M. (2012). Experiences of burnout and coping strategies utilized by occupational therapists. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 79(2), 86–95.