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Holiday and Surge Stress: Tips for Healthcare Workers

Ever since COVID-19 hit the United States, health care workers (HCWs) have been working tirelessly. We saw high levels of distress among HCWs early on[i], and the burden of fighting this pandemic hasn’t eased up. With the holiday season upon us, this distress is compounded – even during “normal” times, the holidays can come with a significant amount of stress between finances, finding gifts for everyone on your list, and trying to celebrate with multiple sides of the family. This year, there’s another layer on top of COVID-19-/work-related burnout and personal holiday stress: seeing so many people traveling or celebrating in large groups. 

As a health care worker, you’re probably used to working through the holiday season and may have had to skip festivities in the past due to your schedule. But this year is different than just missing out; it’s missing out while so many others celebrate like normal, even against public health recommendations or government orders, and knowing that their actions will exacerbate an already bad situation – which you will bear the brunt of. It’s a complicated situation and you’ll likely experience a lot of different emotions over the next few weeks.


There are a lot of valid reasons to be angry right now – family members planning to gather as a big group, strangers traveling all over the country, government officials not giving their communities the guidance they need, or the fact that you’re in this situation at all. Anger is normal (especially right now), and you should let yourself feel those big emotions, but it isn’t healthy to hold onto anger for very long. You also don’t want to hurt other people in expressing your anger. There are plenty of ways to handle your anger in a healthy way by quietly calming yourself down or letting it all out – check out 18 Ways to Cope with Frustration or 10 Healthy Ways to Release Rage for some ideas to get started.


By now, you’ve been carrying the weight of this pandemic for months on end. Dealing with a crisis is draining and you’ve been facing it head-on without much of a break. Working under pressure, making high-stakes decisions, and witnessing so much sickness and death can lead to serious emotional exhaustion. And you’re probably physically tired from long hours and busy shifts – especially if your work schedule or stress is disrupting your sleep. In Mental Health America’s (MHA’s) Healthcare Worker Survey, seventy-six percent of respondents reported feeling exhaustion and burnout, and eighty-two percent had felt a significant increase in emotional exhaustion over the prior three months. You can’t always change the external circumstances leading to your exhaustion, so focus on self-care, get rest when you can, and figure out what strategies for facing burnout work for you.


It’s discouraging to feel like you’re working hard every day to get COVID-19 under control but things just keep getting worse. The efforts of HCWs can only achieve so much when community members aren’t wearing masks and social distancing, and especially when government officials aren’t taking broader action to stop the spread. Feeling defeated right now is entirely valid, but remind yourself that there is hope: progress is being made on vaccines and many new legislators will take office in January with new, comprehensive plans to reduce the spread and get individuals, businesses, and communities back on their feet. In the meantime, you might want to seek out more emotional support from the people who care about you and/or understand what you’re going through. Feeling completely hopeless? Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.


The holidays are a particularly hard time to be alone, especially when your loved ones are together. This year, you may feel especially isolated or left out if your family is gathering against your advice – it may even make you less excited to connect with them at all this season. A number of healthcare workers feel like the general public (including their family and friends) have switched over from applauding them to shunning them, fearing that they’re likely to have contracted COVID-19 through their work – and studies confirm their suspicions[ii]. It isn’t fair but try not to take it personally; it’s not that the people in your life don’t love you or want to see you. Schedule Zoom calls with them, even if you have to set some ground rules like no talking about your work or COVID-19. If that’s not a realistic option for you, reach out to other HCWs you know or your workplace at large – there are bound to be others in a similar situation who would love to responsibly celebrate with you.


You’re sacrificing so much – your time, your energy, your physical health, your mental health – for the greater good. When others won’t make simpler sacrifices, it’s not just them not pulling their weight in this fight; it’s actively making your fight harder. You may feel betrayed by your community or like your family and friends doesn’t really care about what you’re going through and the risks you’re taking. That is a devastating feeling. A vulnerable, honest conversation may help with people who love you, but it’s not your responsibility – if it sounds too draining or you just don’t feel like getting into it with them, that’s okay. It can take a while for the hurt to subside, and to protect yourself and your own mental health, you may want to cut your losses for now in terms of getting them to understand. It’s hard to deal with the hurt alone, so lean on your coworkers for support – you can count on them to get it. You may also want to look into your employer’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), therapy (you can use a platform like BetterHelp or Talkspace, or find a therapist through The Emotional PPE Project), or a HCWs support group in your area.


Sometimes, just existing can feel like too much. There’s a lot being thrown at you non-stop and there’s a good chance you aren’t getting as much support as you would like. You’ve probably felt overwhelmed before, and while this time is likely different (and a lot more intense), give your tried and true coping skills a chance. Pay attention to the basics like eating well, drinking enough water, getting rest, and moving your body. Dealing with emotional overload isn’t easy by any means and can be incredibly uncomfortable, but there are ways to process what’s going on so that you feel more capable to handle it all.

If you’re putting in the effort to cope with these feelings but still can’t shake them, take a mental health screen to see if what you’re experiencing is a sign of a mental health condition. You can find more resources on staying mentally healthy throughout the pandemic on MHA’s COVID-19 Hub – especially in the Frontline Workers section and the Wellness & Coping Skills section. If you want to talk to someone live or need immediate support, you have options: reach out to Magellan Health’s COVID-19 first responder crisis line at (800) 327-7451, the Disaster Distress Helpline at (800) 985-5990, or the Crisis Text Line by texting MHA to 741-741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor at any time.

[i] Aiyer, A., Surani, S., Ratnani, I., Surani, S. (2020). Mental health impact of COVID-19 on healthcare workers in the USA: A cross-sectional web-based survey. Journal of Depression and Anxiety, 9(4).

[ii] Taylor, S., Landry, C.A., Rachor, G.S., Paluszek, M.M., Asmundson, G.J.G. (2020). Fear and avoidance of healthcare workers: An important, under-recognized form of stigmatization during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 75.