COVID Fatigue, Part 1: Recognizing Signs and Managing Outcomes

Those of us in the veterinary field are no strangers to fatigue, but over the past year, we've faced a new type: COVID fatigue. And we're not alone in this either. According to a 2021 study conducted by Oracle Corp. and Workplace Intelligence, 70% of employees making up the global workforce say the past 12 months have been the most stressful of their lives. This stress compounds especially in careers that deal with life and death on a daily basis, such as veterinary medicine.

Therefore, it's no wonder that veterinary practice managers and owners are worrying about their teams' mental health, with exhausted team members seeking relief from the stress. As leaders, we are faced not only with managing our own COVID fatigue but also with recognizing the signs in others and developing strategies to help them cope. Doing so is necessary for our practices and services to remain stable, productive, and accessible for pets and their people.

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What Causes COVID Fatigue?

There is no single definition of COVID fatigue, also called "pandemic fatigue," but the cause is clear. In short, humans are sick and tired of worrying about getting sick and feeling tired, and the acute, short-term stress that motivated many of us to pull together and meet the challenges of COVID-19 is dwindling as the pandemic prolongs. While transmission rates have decreased significantly due to the vaccine rollout, people may still feel the fatigue that's built up over the past year year.

This follows many models in history, as society has generally responded to disaster in phases. During the time that immediately follows the disaster, humans rise up, support each other, and experience a high level of community bonding. Unfortunately, according to UC Davis Health psychologist Kaye Hermanson, once that initial phase passes, disillusionment follows: "Eventually, that heroic spirit wears thin as the difficulties and stress build up. That's when we hit the disillusionment phase. We lose our optimism and start to have angry or negative reactions."

Signs of Pandemic Fatigue in the Workplace

Veterinary practice owners and managers need to be vigilant in watching for common signs of prolonged stress so that we can help our teams cope and stick together. According to the CDC, common symptoms of prolonged COVID-19 stress and fatigue may include:

  • Irritability or anger
  • Increased anxiety
  • Lack of motivation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sadness or depression
  • Disrupted sleep
  • Lethargy and burnout

Two manifestations that we could see in ourselves and our teams are a lack of vigilance in following safety protocols and general burnout. Keep in mind that symptoms may show up in an obvious way for one person but not another.

As Christine Runyan, Ph.D., professor of family medicine and community health at UMass Medical School, explains, "Some people cope with that nervous system activation by 'contracting.' And that can result in a downward spiral mode of motivation, energy — and ultimately, you're creating the conditions within the nervous system that are very ripe for depression."

Regardless of how it manifests or doesn't, you can be sure it exists. In fact, a survey conducted by the CDC in June 2020 — not even midway through the pandemic — found that 40% of American adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse and that the numbers grew further among minority groups. Combine those numbers with the alarming statistic from the Oracle-Workplace Intelligence study that 78% of the global workforce feels the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health, and there's no doubt that people on your team are struggling, publicly or privately.

Compassionate Communication Is Key

Both psychology experts, Runyan and Hermanson advise that communicating directly, frequently, and compassionately will get the best results. If you are worried about a team member's risk of pandemic fatigue, you can direct them to this guide developed by the CDC explaining how to recognize symptoms and risk factors and build resilience in the face of the ongoing pandemic. If a team meeting is possible, you could build whole hospital awareness by going over the guide together or in small groups.

Regardless, as a leader, if you notice changes in behavior consistent with those listed, it is essential to check in with the team member and to help them develop strategies to cope with their version of the stress-related syndrome. At the very least, encourage them to get more sleep, as pandemic fatigue may render usual sleep patterns inadequate to handle the prolonged and accumulating stress. "Even if you're not doing as much as you would normally do, your body's need for sleep actually may be a little big greater," Runyan explains. "You're carrying around this anxiety about the state of your own health and your family's health and the health of your community, which actually requires a lot more energy in our bodies."

The challenges are real. Fatigue related to our prolonged global pandemic is real — and remember, we're in this together. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, "Strategies for Finding Balance in the Face of COVID Fatigue."

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Nell Ostermeier

Dr. Nell is an integrative veterinarian who combines modern medicine with complementary modalities to get the best results for her patients. She has enjoyed a diverse career since graduating from the University of Illinois in 2004. Her roles have included: practice owner, associate, relief vet, and instructor. In 2017, Nell founded People + Pet Integrative Therapies, a virtual business aimed at both pet parents and vets. Her mission is to make integrative healthcare accessible to pets across the world while increasing happiness in the veterinary field. She loves the outdoors and travel.

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