November 29, 2021

Feeling all sorts of stress

Blame COVID-19, but there are strategies to help avoid burnout

Photo Illustration by Todd R. McAdam

Think you have workplace stress? You’re not alone. A recent study shows workers are stressed and nearing burnout from coping with coronavirus fears, to working in isolated environments, particularly at home, where it can be difficult to turn work off.

Being a nurse or frontline healthcare worker comes with a number of stressors already. Mix in the coronavirus pandemic and you’re in the bull’s eye for additional stress.

Guthrie Cortland Medical Center Nursing Supervisor Charles Eaton normally manages daily operations of staffing and patient flow.

“We’re actually like firefighters for the building,” Eaton said. “We identify high-risk areas and then we try to mitigate them as much as possible.”

Those measures have become increasingly important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Since the pandemic started, we really have an emphasis on safe patient flow and maintaining safety throughout the entire building,” Eaton said. That means new fires to put out every day and new rules and regulations to implement. All that adds stress.

A recent survey by the Center for State & Local Government Excellence found that stress increased between May and October 2020 among public sector employees. Private sector employees are battling the same war.

Some workplaces offer avenues of help for employees, but more can be done, said Vanessa Bohns, an associate professor in the Department of Organizational Behavior at Cornell University. Employees can also take steps to alleviate their stress and reduce the chance of burnout.

STRESS RISES

The study, which looked at public sector employees, found that half the workers surveyed — 52% — were stressed, while 47% were feeling burnout and fatigue and 44% were anxious, both increases since May.

In October, 47% reported stress and fear, up from 27% in May.

The survey findings also showed that a third of them in both May and October said the adjustments to their job because of the virus had been “very or extremely” difficult.

But it’s not just public sector employees who feel more stressed, fatigued and burned out during the pandemic.

“What we do is stressful under normal circumstances,” said Lon Fricano, the director of operations and paramedic with TLC Emergency Medical Services.

However, the pandemic has changed how medics handle situations and the stress is at all-new highs.

Medics never know whether they’re walking into a home riddled with coronavirus. They always have to wear the personal protective equipment, Fricano said. That’s in addition to coping with the medical emergency in front of them.

“There are EMS (emergency medical service) workers all over the country that have succumbed to COVID-19,” Fricano said.

PRE-DATING COVID

However, stress in the workplace began long before the pandemic, Bohns said.

“Prior to the pandemic, a workplace culture had already begun to emerge where many employees felt the pressure to be ‘ideal workers,’” Bohns said. “This means many employees were already feeling more and more like we had to be constantly available to our employers and prioritize work over all else. Being constantly connected to our devices exacerbated this tendency, and so the boundaries between work and non-work time were already beginning to blur, which can lead to burnout.”

When the pandemic hit and many employees shifted to working remotely, that only exacerbated the need to be the perfect employee.

“Now for many of us working remotely, there is no clear line between work and home,” Bohns said. “On top of that, many of us still feel that pressure to keep up with this ideal worker image, so we feel like we need to prove to our employers that we are actually working when we are working from home.”

That can lead workers to feel they’re always “on,” which can lead to burnout, she said. That’s compounded by the duration, the lack of opportunity to get away on a real vacation — or even a simple change of scenery.

“At this point a certain monotony has set in for many of us,” Bohns said


Stress survey

A recent survey by the Center for State & Local Government Excellence found that stress increased between May and October 2020 among public sector employees. Private sector employees are battling the same war. Here’s a look the key findings.

  • 52% of respondents felt stressed in October, 47% felt burned out and 44% felt anxious, all increases since May.
  • 31% in October considered changing jobs, up from 20% in May.
  • 81% in October were most concerned about keeping their family safe from COVID-19; 78% worried about protecting themselves from the virus at work.
  • One in four respondents in October said it has been very or extremely difficult to balance the demands of work and homelife since the start of the pandemic.
  • Full-time remote work dropped to 16% in October from 42% in May.
  • 72% of those working in-person in October did not have a choice regarding remote work.
  • 82% of respondents in October reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the nature of their job, similar to the 85% level in May.
  • 46% of respondents were very or extremely satisfied with their employers; 17% were not too satisfied or not at all satisfied.
  • The elements of their job that they were most satisfied with are job security, their leave benefits (both 62%), and their health insurance (59%). In contrast, only 25% were very or extremely satisfied with their non-traditional benefits.
  • The most appealing non-traditional benefits to respondents were flexible work scheduling (70%), along with physical wellness programs and employee assistance programs (both 41%).

— SOURCE: The Center for State and Local Government Excellence at ICMA-RC

STRESS AFFECTS PRODUCTIVITY, HEALTH

Chronic stress can affect one’s physical, mental and behavioral health, according to the Mayo Clinic, including everything from headaches and sleep problems to irritability and exercising less.

Continued stress can lead to burnout — the feeling of being so exhausted and overwhelmed by work that one stops caring and engaging in the job.

“When we are burned out, we feel ineffective, cynical and we may detach or stop caring about our work,” Bohns said. “There are also some emotional components that look similar to anxiety and depression, including anger and frustration. All of this obviously isn’t great for employee productivity.”

COPING WITH STRESS

“Employees can help themselves by preserving boundaries wherever possible, like not working at night or on the weekends, so that there is clearly defined ‘free time,’” Bohns said. “Also, you can do things to help make your free time actually feel different, like putting on casual work clothes during the week and lounge clothes on the weekends, creating a space where you work that isn’t the same space where you relax, etc.”

Making sure to schedule breaks when you’re at home is important, too, she said. “The key is to carve out periods of time for recharging from work so you’re not constantly working, which you have to be a little more proactive about when you’re working from home.”

Eaton said for his job the key thing is to remain flexible, patient and up to date.

“I think staying updated so we don’t get bogged down with irrelevant information or thought processes,” he said.

He said using reputable websites to help find information on what’s happening can “really help with your mindset and allows you to not be as fearful with having the right knowledge and the right amount of information so you can make the best decision for your own practices, as well as your family.”

But he said people should remain mindful of what they feel and get outside — he and his wife have been skiing.

“We can take our masks off when we’re outside, just the two of us, and kind of get away from the whole pandemic mindset and enjoy nature,” he said. “That has helped tremendously.”

CHECK IN WITH YOURSELF

Fricano said having someone to talk to who has gone through similar experiences can also help, especially on tougher days.

“We can’t often explain to other people, even family members about what we’ve been through that day,” he said. TLC’s workers rely on each other to listen.

“We know what the ones we’re talking to have been through,” he said. “They understand the gravity of what you’re saying.”

Fricano said it also helps, especially with his job, when people follow the guidelines of wearing a mask and social distancing. It relieves some of the stress on the paramedics and EMTs.

One of the most important actions someone can take is to check in with themselves and see if they have any signs of stress or burnout, said Dawn Clover, the manager of the employee assistance program for Guthrie systems. They should also check in with their peers, too, which Clover said has become very common among Guthrie employees.


Signs of stress

  • Headache n Anxiety
  • Overeating or undereating
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Restlessness
  • Angry outbursts
  • Chest pain
  • Lack of motivation or focus
  • Drug or alcohol misuse
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Tobacco use
  • Change in sex drive
  • Irritability or anger
  • Social withdrawal
  • Stomach upset
  • Sadness or depression
  • Exercising less often
  • Sleep problems

— SOURCE: Mayo Clinic


Managing stress

  • Get regular physical activity.
  • Practice relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, tai chi or massage.
  • Keep a sense of humor.
  • Set aside time for hobbies, such as reading a book or listening to music.

— SOURCE: Mayo Clinic


EMPLOYERS CAN HELP

Fricano said TLC owner David Butler treats all of his employees like family. The company tries to remain flexible to help people navigate their home and work life — such as switching shifts so a mom could help her child with online learning.

He also said that when workers aren’t on call the company wants them to try to unwind, whether by cooking a meal with a partner or just watching some TV.

When the pandemic started, Guthrie started peer support groups — that included employees at Guthrie Cortland.

“That peer support is really important,” Clover said. Guthrie started with three support groups — people who were furloughed, telecommuters and people working at the hospitals.

The health system has created awareness campaigns, reminding employees to take care of themselves, not just the patients.

“We can have the best resources, but if people aren’t aware of what’s out there we’re just really missing that opportunity,” she said.

Bohns said employers can also help by being explicit in what they expect from employees, such as the case of answering an email immediately.

“We’ve found that explicitly stating that you don’t expect an answer until the next work day gives others the freedom to take the evening off, for example, and feel that they don’t have to respond right away,” she said.

Employers should also let employees know that breaks from the job, such as actually having evenings and weekends off, are important.

“It takes both parties — employers and employees — to prioritize downtime in order to battle burnout,” Bohns said.