We’ve been talking about this a lot at work, and it’s in the news too: how the pandemic is affecting health care workers. I see it in my colleagues. Frustration, exhaustion, irritability. It’s not so much the explanations you read about — yes, it hurts to still see Covid positive patients in our census, those Code Blues and Rapid Responses that never seem to end — so much as it’s the delayed reaction to everything we’ve been through.
The rest of the world sat out the pandemic. They worked from home, had meetings and went to school via Zoom. They had the chance to hit their reset buttons, deciding how much or how little they were willing to sacrifice, what jobs they could tolerate, how best to spend their time and money.
The burnout we experience is health care is our slow understanding that we never had chance to hit our reset buttons. Instead, we kept going. We came in, masked up all day, washed out hands over and over, watched as the basic supplies we needed to do our jobs came and went without explanation. Our workdays were a cycle of unpredictability and chaos.
Each time the pandemic eased up and the stress became more manageable, we tried to go back to doing our job the way we’d done it before. We gave each other virtual high fives and told ourselves, “We got this.” But the old patterns became distant memory. Summer didn’t slow down. Fall didn’t pick up, it slammed us. We saw our census busier than it’s ever been, our “easy” periods non-existent, our patients sicker with delayed care.
I’ve come to think of Covid like a pot of stew on the stove, one we keep adding to and stirring, a big mix of crazy and ugly. We think if we stir it long enough, it will become palatable. We think if we simmer that pot long enough it will be edible. And we hope that if it’s not (which it may not be), we can toss it out and go back to the meals we used to eat, those predictably delicious breakfasts, lunches and dinners.
Eighteen months into the Covid Era, we are finally seeing the truth about the pandemic and health care: nothing is going back to how it was. That big pot of stew is actually our new meal. Those delicious dinners are a thing of the past. Our patients will remain sicker, our hospital census will stay high, our trauma cases will continue to arrive. And Covid? That will be with us too.
So we come in, we try, we go home, we come back again and we hope. We hope we will find a way to rise to the long haul the way we’ve risen to each moment over these past nearly two years. If you know a health care worker, just know that we aren’t tired because of what we’ve been through. We’re tired because we know the future is going to look the same. It’s that Covid pot of stew on the stove, the one we will be stirring for a long time to come.