​Imagine walking into a health care facility and finding there were no housekeepers, nurses, physical and occupational therapists, recreation, dietary, social workers and nutritionists onsite? Imagine if residents were left to fend for themselves in the absence of these valuable and often forgotten heroes? Despite the setbacks of the past few years, health care heroes continue to not only make themselves available to our most vulnerable population, but also strive to go above and beyond. They continue to provide optimum care even when they themselves, or their loved ones, may need this same care. 

Think about the fallen heroes that died on the frontline caring for our most vulnerable population during the pandemic. Think about those that continue to put on their game faces every day to go out and give the best of themselves to the elderly, veterans, children, and anyone in need at our health care institutions. Yet who provides the caregivers with what they need to continue giving?

We hear about the efforts to locate staff to cover various shifts, but we seldom hear about locating services to cover the physical and emotional needs of current caregivers. Some have physically recovered from COVID, but never had the opportunity to explore resources for psychological support. Some have experienced the loss of their loved ones and didn’t have the opportunity for a traditional burial and therefore lack closure.

When Caregivers Need Support

Recognizing when to reach out for support is important and is often missed by caregivers as they are often the beacons of support for others. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), one needs to check in with themselves frequently and reach out for support if experiencing symptoms of depressed emotions and/or burnout. These symptoms include irritability or anger, anxiety, depression, loneliness, sleep deprivation, new or worsened substance abuse, fatigue, and finding it difficult to empathize with others.

Jeff Grzybowski, Director of Rehabilitation at Boro Park Center, a 505-bed skilled nursing facility in Brooklyn, New York, took the initiative to recognize four to five therapy staff employees during his weekly team meetings. He uses the designation “hero” when recognizing these individuals for their outstanding work.

“I felt that I needed to come up with ways to at least lessen, or hopefully remove, that feeling of burnout and to inject that second wind, if you will,” said Grzybowski. “As a result, several people on my team became motivated to pay it forward and made efforts to help those around them as well.”

Grzybowski’s efforts showed gratitude and awareness of staff efforts and this led to further acts of support. Staff were bringing in donuts, checking in with other therapists, and reaching out to other department employees and their supervisors to ask, “How are you doing?” and offering words of encouragement.

Jocelyn Nackley, Director of Rehabilitation at Onondaga Center, an 80-bed skilled nursing facility in Syracuse, New York, also praises her staff members during her internal weekly team meetings and publicly when she works alongside her team on the unit.

“Rehabilitation directors are treating this growing and common situation throughout nursing facilities,” said Nackley. “My team particularly enjoys it when I bring in their favorite foods from local lunch and coffee chains. It brightens their day and helps them go the extra mile. They love their patients but we’re no use for them if we cannot get past that burned out feeling.”

Going Further

Bringing in food and expressing gratitude is a start in the right direction, but it’s certainly not the entire answer. It shows that leadership is paying attention. It is a focus on helping ourselves so that we can better treat the residents and their loved ones.

Several free services are available to assist caregivers including COVID Mental Health Support from the Pandemic Crisis Services Response Coalition. The Emotional PPE Project is another support service that connects heath care professionals with licensed mental health professionals who can help. This service is free and does not require insurance. NAMI can also be contacted directly to access confidential professional support. In addition to these, there are other numerous support services available for health care professionals with both local and nationwide access.

Self-Care Suggestions

In addition to professional support, leadership should encourage caregivers to use self-care as another strategy to combat burnout. Ideas for self-care include:

  • Humor can be used to cope. Seek out the things that make you laugh. Laughter is the best medicine.
  • Recognize you are vital and are critically important in the fight against the pandemic. You are doing the best you can with what’s available.
  • Sleep is important and one of the best ways to rejuvenate. Try to get at least 7 hours of sleep daily.
  • Eat to provide fuel to your body. Ensure you eat as balance of a diet as possible. Adequate hydration is essential as well.
  • Meditate to relax, reduce anxiety, and manage stress. There are online classes and apps available.
  • Exercise is hugely beneficial. Walking increases circulation and endurance and can be a great way to escape from the everyday. Simple muscle stretching and coordinated breathing techniques add to the benefits of exercise. You don’t have to join a gym to get going as many activities are available free of charge.
  • Reach out to family, friends, and coworkers for support. Don’t go at it alone—talk to others for support. Many facilities also offer more formal support programs that can be helpful.
  • Stay positive. Healing improves when the mind is relaxed and in a positive state. Try to see the positive in others and yourself. Provide positive reinforcements to others every chance you get.
  • Connect with your spirituality. Ask yourself how you are feeling each day. Ensure you listen to the voice within and act in ways to support it. Calming environments and music may aid this journey. Learn to appreciate what you have and be thankful to yourself and others that helped along the way
  • Take a trip. Travel to a place you want to explore. This can be anywhere from the new restaurant down the street to another state or even international travel. This helps you to focus and reflect as you explore other worlds outside your own.
  • Love yourself and others. Find ways to remember the good you’ve done and show compassion to others.

The pandemic stressed health care providers to their limits. Now it is time for leaders to provide additional support to these caregivers in order to avoid burnout.

Dexter Vickerie, RN-BC, MSN, RAC-CT, is Corporate Director of Quality/Clinical Compliance and Risk Management at Centers Health Care.