The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has touched all aspects of society including how we work. Emergency responders, health care workers, and other essential workers have been stretched incredibly thin. They’re working longer hours and more shifts, and even taking on over-night work. All of that exertion leaves them with less time to sleep and recharge before they have to do it all again. While we’re all feeling the fatigue, according to Jeff Traeger, president of UFCW 823, Manitoba’s largest labour union, essential workers “are feeling it twice as hard.” Though we recognize the pressures on essential workers, lets us not fail to acknowledge and recognize the impact COVID-19 has on all workers.
COVID-19 Fatigue (Pandemic Fatigue)
After over a year of restrictions, lockdowns, and quarantines, everyone is tired. Tired of being cooped up, of wearing masks, of physical distancing, of being away from family and friends, and of all the new normal routines. This frustration and fatigue can lead to careless behaviors — and a sharp rise in fatigue related incidents. Experts are calling it COVID-19 fatigue.
While we have more opportunity to stretch our legs, shed the cabin-fever feeling, and get outside with summer on its way, we need to be aware of the dangers COVID-19 Fatigue presents to our mental and physical health.
Recognize signs of COVID-19 fatigue in yourself, co-workers, and employees
Pandemic stressors can wear on all of us. COVID-19 fatigue occurs when you’ve reached your capacity to cope, and experience emotional, mental, and physical symptoms as a result. These symptoms might include:
- Physical and/or mental fatigue
- Lack of energy
- Feeling constantly overwhelmed, sad, or helpless
- The inability to complete daily tasks
- Increased irritability
- Reduced work performance
- Isolating from others
It can be hard to self-identify symptoms. It’s important to pay as much attention to your body as your mind. There are three main symptoms that can be dangerous when experienced together. Carl Lambert, MD, assistant professor at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago says they are “…being excessively tired despite adequate rest”, secondly, “increased isolation from loved ones, coworkers and people who you used to have bonds with, burnout and fatigue, can make you feel like those things aren’t really worth it anymore”. Doctor Lambert also identifies a sense of helplessness or ineffectiveness in life as the third dangerous symptom. “Those three things make a really dangerous combination because it can make your fatigue turn to maladaptive behavior.”
It’s important to recognize that we are living through stressful and unusual circumstances, and you may need to let your workers including yourself off the hook of performing like you did before the pandemic. You might need more sleep or time to recover, you may need to take walks at non-peak times to moderate your anxiety, you may need to take a personal day from work, or talk to a counsellor. None of these changes mean that you’re giving up, or even failing — they mean that you’re willing to meet yourself, mentally, physically, and emotionally, where you’re at — even if it’s not quite where you want to be; and recognizing this for your co-workers too will pay significant dividends in morale and productivity in the long run.
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Seek mental health care, and as an employer, make your people aware that there is help
“Mental health has been suffering and it’s partly that loss of social connection, but it also stinks to be inside all the time, and it makes sense that COVID fatigue is hitting,” said Dr. Anna Yap, of the UCLA-Ronald Reagan/Olive View emergency medicine program. “This is a completely normal thing to experience, so if you need to seek mental health care resources, do that.”
“I don’t want patients to feel silly — it’s a very common phenomenon,” said Dr. Lambert. “We just have to figure out how you navigate this in a way that you stay strong and resilient and that you don’t do anything that’s reckless for yourself or the people around you.”
Seek and provide help in these tough times. At your workplace, you can help destigmatize COVID-19 fatigue, mental health issues, and mental health care by:
- Including it as a topic during meetings, such as safety meetings, team meetings, organizational townhalls, and especially supervisor-worker one-to-ones
- Creating and distributing a resource list about all the workplace-specific resources offered through benefits, the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), if applicable, and any workplace organizations, clubs, or associations. If possible, include other accessible resources, such as local counselling services (non-profit or otherwise), crisis centers, hotlines, community support resources, and online apps or services.
- Use person-centered management practices to meet your team-members where they’re at, such as stress and support communication charts, team contact charts, and even working and not working feedback tools
- Encourage, support, and promote communication within your teams and working groups, through lessons learned, lunch and learns, and workplace mentorship. Encourage your teams to socialize virtually — when people can’t go chat by the watercooler, bring the watercooler to the (online) chat.
Most of all, remind your employees that even though they may be isolated, they’re not alone, and they’re not the only ones who need a little extra support.
Your provincial governments are great sources of support as well. For instance, Manitoba is offering two free virtual counselling sessions for every Manitoba resident age 16 or older with trained professionals, and with multiple language options.
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Find ways to have community
Encourage non-work social opportunities within your workplace. It may sound counter productive, but it can actually create more engagement, increase morale, and boost productivity. Humans are social animals. We need time and opportunities to connect.
Experts have discovered that prolonged isolation can affect your physical and emotional health. It alters your sleep and nutritional rhythms and reduces your opportunities for movement. This leads to low mood, dissatisfaction, and disconnection with others. Interestingly, scientists have also noted an association between low physical health and social isolation.
Isolation and disconnection aren’t usually by choice, but at some point, especially with the risks of crowded locations, variants with wider transmission ranges, and people who aren’t following restrictions, people can begin to choose isolation because it feels safer than the risks of being around other people. That can be just as dangerous, leading to increased anxiety, depression, and other problems.
Finding ways to stay connected is more important than ever. Encourage your work teams and yourself to be more social. With restrictions limiting in-person contact, for many people, their work teams, and those they speak to during their virtual meetings and online interactions, are the people they speak to the most. Encourage those connections and that social support by building in time for non-work conversation. Create opportunities to just chat on virtual meeting apps with no agenda other than to just interact.
You and your teams can build connection and community by:
- Promoting, encouraging, and modelling proper work/life balance. Do your best to take breaks, go for walks outside, leave at your scheduled end times to spend time with family, and even take personal days to hang out with your kids and enjoy the summer. Encourage others to do the same.
- Promoting safe co-worker outdoor walking meetings. Following restrictions and guidelines, the change of pace and of place can help boost creativity, joy, and out-of-the-box thinking.
- Speaking openly about the current reality and being supportive of others’ needs. Some people may be feeling more anxiety than others, some may be more tired. Being open enables you and your teams to reach out to one another for help, validation, and understanding.
- Engage in virtual low-stakes teambuilding. Even if in-person team-building events are off the table, that doesn’t mean they have to be sacrificed altogether. Find a low-stakes virtual game, like online Pictionary, Scrabble, or even a multi-player video game like Among Us, to just share space and let off steam.
- Creating some certainties. With so many risks and unknowns, it can be difficult to feel safe and prepared from day to day. Try to create some certainties at work by holding and sticking to regular meetings, check-ins, and tasks, whenever possible. Structure, even just at work, helps people feel prepared because they know what to expect.
Our resilience is closely linked to the depth and strength of our interpersonal connections, including our involvement in groups and communities, states Dr. Giada Pietrabissa, a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for Treatment and Research (IRCCS). Rather than letting your pandemic protocols slide, experts encourage finding ways to do the things that you want to do and see the people you want to see, within reason, as part of maintaining and improving mental health during the pandemic. Promote, encourage, and model proper work/life balance, self-care, supportive workplace relationships, and connection. Be the kind of person, and the kind of organization, others can rely on — from family, friends, and coworkers to customers and the public.
Because the only way out, as the old saying goes, is through — and the only way we’ll get through this?Together.
AMA Moving Medicine – Feb 2021