Frontline healthcare workers once celebrated, now experiencing burnout

Coronavirus

EUFAULA, Ala. (WRBL) – Healthcare workers have been on the frontlines of this pandemic for over a year, and the resurgence of COVID cases is taking an emotional toll on these caregivers. MainStreet Family Care in Eufaula is working to make sure their employees feel supported.

Mental health professionals describe burnout as physical, mental and emotional exhaustion that is a result of persistent exposure to an emotionally demanding trigger. In the case of healthcare workers, that emotionally demanding trigger is working on the frontlines of COVID-19. 

In the thick of the pandemic, the country celebrated healthcare workers with rounds of applause, and phrases like “health care heroes” and “frontline warriors.” Now America’s healthcare workers are in crisis as E.R.s and I.C.U.s are feeling eerily similar to the peak of the pandemic. Developmental and Biological Psychologist Dr. Diana Riser says this jump in hospitalizations has emotional consequences for frontline workers. 

“It can lead, particularly for those in caregiving professions, for them to experience an empathy overload where they cannot empathize any more,” Riser said. “You see a lot of news lately about how doctors are just exhausted… because they’ve been doing so much, they’ve been asking the community to help for so long and it’s still going on.”

Alabama still has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country with 37% of its population fully vaccinated. At Mainstreet Family Care in Eufaula, COVID patient intake is higher now than it was a year ago. They’ve taken operational steps such as piloting an online registration system to limit patient intake, but they’ve also prioritized internal appreciation events to keep morale up. 

“A couple of weeks ago on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, all of our clinics shut down for half a day. We gave all of our employees a paid half day off just again to spend time with family, catch up, to catch their breath because we know that it is hard,” Betsy Stewart, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer for MainStreet Eufaula said. “We know that they are busting it every day to be healthcare heroes in these communities.”

The long hours can already be physically and emotionally demanding, but these workers also are also dealing with the added pressures of dealing with upset patients. 

“It’s important to prioritize that self-care time and know that you can’t pour from an empty pitcher, so you can’t give to others if you’re burnt out and exhausted yourself,” Riser said. 

MainStreet Eufaula has put a system in place to be as transparent as possible with patients on what time they will be seen. With that, it can be disheartening for staff to be spat on, yelled at and cursed at when they don’t meet the speedy expectations of their patients. 

“I think it’s the long hours, and it’s also just sometimes dealing with patients who certainly have expectations of being in and out within an hour,” Stewart said.  “Even with our system that allows for them to wait from home, they may not realize our clinic has a capacity with our basic staffing model to see about 50 patients a day. We may have 50 patients register by 10-11 a.m. and it takes us all day to see those patients.” 

The politicization of mask mandates and ignored pleas for vaccinations can bring added stressors beyond the workplace. 

“I think burnout is particularly hard for healthcare workers right now because right now when they try to go into the everyday world, they see community members not wearing their masks, boldly anti-vaccination and really doing any physical distancing,” Riser said. “It can make it hard for routine selfcare to feel like self care when everywhere around you it feels like maybe people aren’t doing their best.”

When the dust settles, the most important thing is for these workers to work in an environment that can support their mental health. As Betsy Stewart from Mainstreet Eufaula says, these workers are making sacrifices to keep our communities safe and, for patients, a bit of bedside manner and kindness can go a long way to support these healthcare heroes. 

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