Healthcare professionals should allow themselves to take a break now, before the intensity of work increases again, says Fiona Donald, vice president of the Royal College of Anaesthetists
It seems odd to talk about holidays at the moment, but bear with me. We all need a break from work from time to time, even when we can’t go anywhere. At the moment, many of us are working longer hours than normal, often not in our usual area of clinical practice and in physically and mentally demanding conditions.
In addition, whether your hospital is nearly back to normal or still in the thick of pandemic-related activity, I imagine you have given some thought to further surges and what they might mean for you and your colleagues. It is a cliché to say that this is a marathon not a sprint, but it is also true, so we need to get ourselves ready to cope.
Our latest membership survey has shown that the proportion of anaesthetists suffering mental distress, or even feeling at risk of burnout, has not decreased since our previous survey in April. This is despite the fact that they report less physical illness and more confidence in the supply of personal protective equipment and in access to testing than when they were last surveyed. This is disappointing, but not surprising.
It would, of course, be naive to think that the psychological effects of the pandemic would disappear as the peak passes. Even before all this started it was clear that some anaesthetists were in danger of burnout, and recent experiences are unlikely to have improved things.
Equally we cannot say that taking a holiday will be a miracle cure, but we all need time for rest and recuperation. This was emphasised in our document Restarting planned surgery in the context of the covid-19 pandemic where one of the prerequisites for returning to normal activity was that staff had had time to recover from the acute fatigue and stress caused by this pandemic surge.
Unfortunately, we also know from our survey that a third of anaesthetists have experienced difficulty taking annual leave over the last month. A few people said that they had cancelled their own leave because they wanted to postpone taking a break until they could actually go away. This is understandable but possibly misguided now that we know what we are facing.
Even though you can’t have a traditional holiday you can still have a meaningful break. I have set out some tips, which are based on no science other than my own experience, on how to have an effective break during lockdown:
- Cut yourself off from work commitments and responsibilities. None of us are indispensable. Don’t look at emails. I know this is difficult but even just checking once a day will bring work worries back into your mind. While you might feel anxious at the beginning of your week off, within a couple of days the urge to check emails should have diminished. Rest assured that if anybody really needs to get hold of you, they will find you. What can be helpful, assuming you have a week off, is to look at your emails on Sunday so as to prevent the Monday morning blues.
- Don’t use your holiday to catch up on work tasks, such as guideline production or your e-portfolio. As with your emails, these things will still be there when you get back and by then you may be able to manage them more effectively. If you absolutely have to do something, allocate a designated amount of time and stick to it. If your children are doing homework or other members of the household are working from home then maybe you could time your work to coincide with some of theirs.
- Give your days some structure by planning activities such as exercise, socially distanced meetings with friends and family, or virtual meetings with those who are further away. Try and avoid staying up later than you normally would or getting up later in the morning. Routine helps your sleep pattern which helps your state of mind.
- Think about devoting some time to a hobby – new or old.
- Don’t feel guilty. You work hard when you are not on holiday and you deserve some time off. No one will criticise you for not working during your holiday, but they will expect you to come back refreshed and ready to start again.
Bon virtual voyage.
Fiona Donald, vice president of the Royal College of Anaesthetists
Competing interests: None declared