Exhaustion, stress, and heartache: Helping healthcare workers overcome COVID-19 physician burnout

Editor's note:

When healthcare workers are asked why they chose their profession, most, if not all, cite the enormous satisfaction they derive from helping people heal or saving lives. Life, death, and the stress that comes from helping patients navigate between the two have been part of their workday lives from the time they were medical students. 

But COVID-19 has upended their expectations of what they can achieve, how they should work, let alone what they should expect to endure in a typical day. In every country, in every healthcare facility near a COVID-19 hotspot, healthcare workers are experiencing exponentially higher levels of stress and working hours, and doing so in conditions that are not only personally dangerous, but with the added heartache of seeing so many of their patients die alone, away from the succor and support of loved ones.

March 26, 2020

At a Columbia Global Centers | Beijing March 26th webinar, medical psychology experts from Columbia University and Peking University (PKU) discussed what hospitals and healthcare workers can do to address rampant stress and burnout.

Depersonalization, emotional exhaustion, and the lack of a sense of personal accomplishment could result in burnout while healthcare providers fight against coronavirus, said Susan L. Rosenthal, Columbia Professor of Medical Psychology at the webinar.

According to Professor Rosenthal, caring for people who are dying, while also being aware of the many daily news reports highlighting the crisis, frontline medical workers might suffer from secondary traumatic distress, with the same symptoms as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Under normal conditions, these negative effect, she added, are mitigated by compassion satisfaction derived from caring for others and making people healthy. In the COVID-19 pandemic, however, healing professionals may not experience this typical and critical satisfaction as they experience shortages in life-saving equipment and emotional energy needed.

The stress impact from handling a life saving medical event is manageable, and not necessarily harmful, if the stress is short in duration. But chronic stress, Professor Rosenthal warned, from the overwhelming workload that medical workers are now enduring can harm the immune system and one’s psychological well-being.

One in every three staff members were having mental health risks, while female staff and those in direct contact with patients were more vulnerable to such risks, according to an online survey at a local hospital receiving COVID-19 patients in Wuhan, China, said Rui-yuan GUAN, PKU Dean of Department of Medical Psychology.

One third of frontline medical staff hoped to receive online psychological counselling, the result of the survey showed.

Professor Susan L. Rosenthal (upper left), Rui-yuan GUAN (upper right) and Professor David P. Roye Jr. at the webinar

To heal the healer

Professor Guan said that policy support in China would substantially back up frontline workers and help ease their anxiety, including letting them take shifts and providing financial support.

For the US medics, “Perhaps the most important is just attempting to build an infrastructure where people don’t have to work fourteen or eighteen hours at a time, building an infrastructure so that they [healthcare providers] can be relieved from the overwhelming nature of a work like this,” suggested David P. Roye Jr., Columbia Emeritus St. Giles Professor of Pediatric Orthopedic Surgery and Chief Medical Officer at JuniperMD.

Professor Rosenthal urged that healthcare leaders should explain to the medical staff what is happening and why it is happening to give them confidence and a sense of control. It is essential that the medics are getting the right information, anticipating the upcoming stress, and planning for it.

Meanwhile, she emphasized the importance of teamwork and human connection, “social distancing does not mean social disconnection,” noted her.

The experts also appealed for healthcare resources support and public social distancing to help flatten the curve and shield medical workers from being overwhelmed. For those frontline healthcare workers, they should take a break when feeling overwhelmed and speak out their fears, because “taking care of our own selves is a critically important part of taking care of our patients,” as remarked by Professor Rosenthal.

Webinars on COVID-19

Co-hosted by JuniperMD and International Healthcare Leadership, the webinar serves as the third one of Coronavirus thematic series program launched by Columbia Global Centers | Beijing.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, Columbia Global Centers | Beijing has been working closely with experts and scholars from Columbia University, Peking University, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and other institutions to help audience understand the virus and the mental health conditions of frontline medical staff and people affected by the virus outbreak, as well as to provide solutions and suggestions for improvement.

*Click here to view the video