Flu Season, a Pandemic, and the Holidays? Preventing Burnout and Overwhelm

Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC

Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC

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There is no one on earth who has lived through a holiday season coupled with influenza and an increasingly tenacious pandemic fed by a previously unknown virus. With SARS-CoV-2 (the official name of the virus that causes the disease known as COVID-19), nurses on the front lines are witnessing a healthcare world unlike anything seen before. The current situation is wholly unprecedented as we chart unknown waters with more than 1 million dead and infections on the rise. 

Nurses experience burnout and compassion fatigue under normal conditions, and even before the pandemic, they were identified as more at risk of suicide than the general population. 

The holidays are generally a time of increased stress with flu season as a complication. But throw in a pandemic and we have a recipe for the holidays causing an exponential need for healthy coping. 

Looking Beyond the Usual Self-Care Paradigm 

Most articles on nurse self-care will usually enumerate avenues for maintaining wellness, perhaps including exercise, journaling, mindfulness, and yoga. While these practices should certainly be dusted off as soon as possible (if not already), these unparalleled times call for a deeper dive as we head into the first pandemic holiday season. 

COVID Holiday Stress 

With the holidays on the horizon, many of us feel our stress levels begin to mount and the common anxieties arise: 

  • Will my politically overzealous father-in-law disrupt Thanksgiving dinner again with his ranting?
  • Do I have enough money to buy gifts for every niece, nephew, and grandchild? 
  • Since I have to work on Christmas Eve, can I count on having New Year’s Eve off? 
  • Will my husband and brother get in a drunken fight on Hannukah like last time?
  • How many work-related potlucks will I need to cook for this time? 
  • How can I prevent myself from gaining even more weight after gaining 15 pounds since the pandemic began?

In this time of a global emergency sickening and killing so many, other questions arise, some of which may be more existentially pressing, calling for us to shift our self-care priorities into higher gear.  These may include: 

  • With my wife unemployed, how do we tell the kids we can’t afford Christmas gifts? 
  • My depression is deepening with ongoing isolation; do I need to ask my nurse practitioner to increase my antidepressant? 
  • What do I do when one glass of wine and some marijuana turns into a bottle of wine and two Percocets?  
  • How can I safely visit my grandchildren who I haven’t seen in over a year? 
  • My father lives in France and has metastatic lung cancer. How do I deal with not seeing him before he dies? 
  • I’m frightened that I’ve felt suicidal for the first time in my life this year.
  • How will I make it through the long dark winter without seeing my friends? 
  • My autistic 11-year-old daughter has lost so much ground in her social development due to the lockdown, and I can no longer cope with parenting.

Altered Coping and New Priorities

Pandemic-related questions that arise necessitate a new level of introspective care. From financial strain to life and death, we need more than a hot bath, essential oils, and a meditation app. Those tools are useful, but when we’re facing situations that stretch our ability to actually cope, we can feel our lives slipping away. 

As mentioned above, nurses are at greater risk of suicide than the average person, and as many as one in ten nurses are estimated to be living with a substance use disorder. In these troubled times, our self-care must extend beyond the yoga mat. Important coping strategies for these days of the coronavirus layered on top of the holidays may include: 

  • Psychotherapy and counseling
  • Support from a faith leader
  • Hotlines for substance use and suicide
  • The Employee Assistance Program (EAP) at work
  • Admitting we have a problem
  • Asking a family member to move in for the winter and help with the kids
  • Seeking help when things get rough
  • Al-Anon, AA, OA, etc
  • Quitting a position with which we can no longer cope
  • Standing up to a workplace bully
  • Taking a leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

DIALOGUE BOX: National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255

In these times, the usual self-care strategies may need to be an adjunct to more robust measures. Serious problems call for serious solutions, and no matter how much an essential oil may help with mild anxiety, it will not control the very real and present danger of suicidal ideation. Our self-care must escalate with our need, and sometimes we need heavy-duty help for heavy-duty challenges.  

When the holidays combine with flu season and the pandemic, we must take responsibility to pull out all the stops in service to our own wellness. In extraordinary times, we nurses may need more support than we’re used to, and we must remember that asking for it and showing vulnerability isn’t a sign of weakness, but a sign of great inner knowing and personal strength. 

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