From the Medical Director: Update on burnout/stress related to COVID-19 pandemic
By: Edwin Kim, MD, MRO
I am grateful to connect with counselors, therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists across Pennsylvania. These clinicians have expressed their strong interest in helping physicians and medical workers cope with the stresses related to the pandemic, as well as the ongoing burden of workplace-related burnout.
Most have adopted telemedicine into their practice in order to broaden their therapeutic reach during these times. And I am glad the Physicians’ Health Program has the foresight to build this referral for Pennsylvania doctors and staff because there is growing evidence and confirmation of problematic mood, anxiety and substance use rising during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our colleagues at the Ontario Medical Association Physician Health Program collaborated with University of Toronto researchers to characterize the impact of pandemic on health care workers. The preliminary results demonstrate that indeed women health care workers are at increased risk for stress, depression and burnout. Unsurprisingly, they noted various factors that exist at the individual, organizational and system level that contributed to negative outcomes in these women. This study reaffirms the widespread belief that we must prioritize physician health and well-being.
For leadership and employers interested in promoting employee health in the workplace, I invite you to view the webinar, “A Physical and Psychosocial Response for a Post-COVID-19 Workplace,” which is available on the Foundation’s website at www.foundationpamedsoc. org/physicians-health-program/physician-burnout-resources. This guide highlights the components of a holistic and humanistic approach to your employees’ health.
While organizational change can inherently take time to implement, I encourage individuals to take steps to fortify their own mental health as well. My primary suggestion for individuals is to focus on their innate ability to overcome stressful times, and to recognize their strength when facing ongoing adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats and significant sources of stress. In essence, individuals can focus on what psychologists describe as resilience.
As it turns out, resilience, as a learnable, fortifiable skill, is consistently identified as a significant way to combat burnout and rise above (and potentially thrive) in dynamic, challenging situations. And fortunately, the American Psychological Association further clarifies that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary.
Psychologists suggest that resilience is not a personality trait nor a characteristic. Rather, it is best conceptualized as an exercisable skill. In their roadmap for adapting to life-changing situations, they suggest building social connections, fostering mental and physical health and wellness, avoiding negative outlets such as alcohol and drugs, proactively finding purpose in helping others and oneself, and embracing healthy thoughts in the form of a broader perspective, hopeful outlook and learning from one’s past. Lastly, they suggest seeking help from a licensed mental health professional who can assist in developing a strategy for moving forward.
As we continue coping in 2020, I also encourage you to actively negate the impact of social isolation. Reach out to peers from medical school, residency and fellowship. Build new relationships with leadership and staff and learn more about the triumphs and struggles across other disciplines and specialties.
For more insight, please also read Medical Director Dr. Raymond Truex’s reflections on empathy. If you or someone you know is in need of professional mental help, therapy or counseling, please contact the PHP staff for assistance in finding options in your area.
Sriharan A, Ratnapalan S, Tricco A, Lupea D, Ayala A, Pang H, Lee D. (2020, July 13). Stress, burnout and depression in women in health care during COVID-19 Pandemic: Rapid Scoping Review. medRxiv 2020.07.13.20151183; doi: https://doi. org/10.1101/2020.07.13.20151183
This article is a preprint and has not been peer-reviewed. It reports new medical research that has yet to be evaluated and so should not be used to guide clinical practice.
American Psychological Association. (2020, February 1). Building your resilience. Retrieved from http://www.apa. org/topics/resilience