Covid fatigue—the worst weeks yet?

In 2020, we wrote an opinion piece about covid fatigue that struck a chord with healthcare workers across the world. At that time, we were starting to see the toll that the first wave of the pandemic was taking on NHS staff. Constant changes in working conditions, increasing workload, and the strain of ongoing uncertainty were leaving many feeling exhausted, something we termed “covid-fatigue.”

Fast-forward a year on, and we are, if anything in a worse position. Healthcare workers, who found themselves struggling through the early stages, have continued unabated throughout the past 12 months, without adequate rest and respite, and now face even more challenging and tiring times.

In our role of supporting and treating healthcare workers with mental health problems we are seeing similar presentations to the first wave, but more of it. The NHS Practitioner Health is now receiving 100% more self-referrals than in May 2020 as the ongoing strain overwhelms healthcare workers’ psychological and physical defences. Doctors are presenting with anxiety, depression, trauma, and grief, all similar to last time, but now layered with an extra weariness on top. 

Of course, there is hope, but this is mixed with realism. The promised vaccine will still need time to reach its impact across the whole population; while the peak might be over we still have the backlog of endless non-covid work which has to be dealt with and we all remain alert to the threat that new strains might have on our future lives. We look forward to easier, warmer months, and the possibility of hugging our loved ones for the first time in a year, but this is tempered by the knowledge that many of us will be left with effects that will take time to heal.

For those struggling and feeling the weight of covid-fatigue, you are not alone. Remember the same things that helped us through the last time, will help again, and are perhaps now more important than ever before:

Whatever our situation as healthcare professionals—good pacing, refreshment, and support will still be the key to surviving the long road ahead. Here are our 3 top tips for surviving this phase of fatigue and keeping well for the long-haul:

  • Take regular breaks during your working shifts, even if you have work to do—breaks make us more efficient and productive and they help us to avoid burnout 
  • Remember this is a long-game and none of us are indispensable—handover to your team or another colleague so you can properly switch off during your rest time 
  • Consider a 3-minute ritual at the end of your shift—take 3 deep breaths and list 3 things that were tough and 3 things that went well

Listen to a related podcast about coping with covid fatigue.

Clare Gerada is a GP and Medical Director of NHS Practitioner Health 

Caroline Walker is a Psychiatrist and therapist at NHS Practitioner Health and Founder of The Joyful Doctor  

Competing interests: none declared

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