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Dealing with Burnout & Compassion Fatigue during COVID-19

I still remember sitting in class as a first year social service work student and consistently going over the topics of compassion fatigue and burnout. I knew that learning about how to modulate self-care in a supporting profession was integral to sustaining a long career in social work or social services. I understand now, why they really go out of their way to ensure you fully understand what burnout can look like, and how to prevent it from happening.

Fast forward to two years later, and am I ever glad we went over it so extensively. We are currently sitting in the midst of a global pandemic - and seeing an influx in deaths related to COVID-19, alongside an elevation in politically charged calamities. The pandemic in combination with the calamities involving white nationalism and systemic racism in North America have had a huge impact on all people. Needless to say, I chose a good time to enter the field of social services. But is it really a good time?

Demanding that individuals socially isolate when social isolation is the root of many mental health and addiction challenges... Expecting all individuals to transition into a virtual delivery of services forgetting that not all individuals are privileged enough to have access to these types of technologies or have enough experience to navigate them... These are just some of reasons that lead to additional barriers in obtaining support, when there are already many pre-existing barriers to begin with. More and more people continue to fall through the cracks of our social safety net. While the fear of COVID-19 floats over us and keeps many safe, it can also blind us from seeing the collateral damage that these restrictions have imposed on other populations.

When we talked about burnout and compassion fatigue, I never thought I would catch a glimpse of it within less than a year of practicing in the field. However, I understand now why it is so widespread, especially at this time. Burnout and compassion fatigue are not only caused by vicarious trauma, or working with individuals who are experiencing challenges and internalizing their challenges. Burnout and compassion fatigue are also byproducts of observing the systemic injustices in our society, while others turn a blind eye, minimize them, or show little compassion and empathy. It can be about knowing that there are so many injustices currently happening in the world, while simultaneously feeling that as a single person, there is very little you can do about it. However, I think it's important to mention, that it does not make me feel hopeless for others or in general. But, it has certainly given me a glimpse of the ways in which this type of negative thinking can manifest.

When you choose to pursue a career in social services, you choose to advocate for others, and by doing so, you don’t always find yourself on the path of least resistance. In fact, often times you find yourself on the path of most resistance, and it can feel like a never-ending fight. It is the vicarious trauma, energy transference, and the awareness of social injustices that cause burnout more than anything. It has been hard to see how much more value a COVID-19 death, has over an overdose, suicide or illness due to social isolation or an inaccessibility to services. I am not saying we all care more about COVID-19 than others who are dying due to reasons surrounding the pandemic. However, I am saying that throughout the pandemic very little has been published or said about the other lives that are being lost. Those lives deserve to be advocated for just as much. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been a 38% increase in opioid-related deaths alone. There has also been an increase in suicidal ideation, suicide attempts and mental illness according to the Canadian Mental Health Commission:

"One in 20 Canadians (6%) had recently experienced thoughts or feelings of suicide as a result of the pandemic and emphasized that certain subgroups in Canada had been disproportionately impacted. When compared to the general population, Indigenous people and people with pre-existing mental health problems, disabilities, and low incomes were two to four times as likely to have had suicidal thoughts since the outbreak of COVID-19....people who identified as 2SLGBTQ+ were three times as likely to have tried to harm themselves, and racialized groups, women, and parents with children under 18 were more likely to report worse mental health. These preliminary findings suggest that certain subgroups (i.e., Indigenous people, racialized groups, members of 2SLGBTQ+ communities, people with a disability, people with mental health problems) have been experiencing worse mental health outcomes and more suicide-related behaviours since the onset of the pandemic."

I think that it is important to recognize, that when it comes to this pandemic, there are more vulnerable populations than people who are over 60 or have co-morbidities. There are populations that were vulnerable prior to this pandemic, that are now more vulnerable as a result; and their needs are not being met.

Everyday that I go into work I promise myself to keep trying, regardless of how easy it is to adopt a pessimistic or cynical view on the world as a social service worker. I promise myself to spend more time looking at the positivity of the day, the little things, or the small successes that may seem little to me - but are huge to others. I promise myself to continue to participate in a self-care routine, and I thank my professors and supervisor for welcoming open dialogue around compassion fatigue and burnout, and highlighting the importance of recognizing it as soon as possible. I encourage everybody to do the same, regardless of the field they work in, because it is a tough time for everybody.

What are some ways to combat the feelings of social isolation and depression due to pandemic guidelines?

1. Exercise - Whether it's going for a walk, or doing on the spot body weight exercises, try to incorporate some level of physical activity in your day. Exercise releases "feel good" hormones called endorphins, raises the immune system, and has many other benefits.

2. Meditation/Mindfulness - I cannot stress how important meditation is, and we all know there is a large body of research that supports the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. For me personally, beginning the day with a 10 minute guided meditation significantly increases my capacity to deal with stressors throughout the day and keeps my mind clear and focused.

3. Structure/Routine - We all need to feel like we have purpose, or need a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Having structure in your day can be extremely helpful when attempting to combat feelings associated with the pandemic. In addition, there is something satisfying about writing out a morning routine and scratching each task off a list once it's completed.

4. Picking up Old Hobbies - I used to paint, draw and read more before the pandemic started. Since it began, I've had more time to dedicate to picking up these old hobbies. It is good, because healthy hobbies pass time and can be considered a mindful activity due to the focus on one task at hand.

5. Virtual Gatherings - To be honest, I do not do this enough, and not everyone has access to Zoom or a computer/phone - but I think its important to continue to see the ones you love, regardless of how it's done. We need to continue to practice ways of connecting with others and sharing those relationships.

To end this article, I urge everyone to obviously continue to follow COVID-19 guidelines, but to also keep other vulnerable populations in mind as well. Also consider that some of the expectations to shift to virtual services or learning are not always realistic, and that social distancing also results in a reduction of services needed to sustain well-being. There is no one "right way" to navigate through this pandemic, but we can do it with more empathy and open-mindedness towards other vulnerable populations. Keep in mind that keeping these populations in mind as well, can help to inform decisions that are made with respect to policies and guidelines. We are all threads in the fabric of humanity, and we will get through this together. We need to remember that we are all connected.


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