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'Compassion Fatigue' may increase for healthcare workers during pandemic

The pandemic causes front-line works to be exposed to difficult situations for a long period of time, which could lead to feeling emotionally "burnt out."

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Five months into the coronavirus pandemic in Tennessee, healthcare workers say they are feeling emotionally "burnt out."

It's an invisible illness plaguing hospitals during the pandemic, and it's not COVID-19. It affects doctors and nurses on the front lines during the global health crisis.

It's called "compassion fatigue" and it's a side effect of exposure to difficult situations for a long period of time. It's described as feeling like a person's empathy tank is empty.

According to the University of Tennessee's Dean of Nursing, Victoria Niederhauser, healthcare caregivers could be feeling stressed, depressed and overworked even more during the pandemic.

"Our job has always been to take care of others, and so often times you will put that before taking care of yourself," Niederhauser said.

RELATED: Doctors offer tips for managing COVID-19 related anxiety, five months into pandemic

It's the same for telehealth workers too, who take consultation calls on Zoom all day, a teleconferencing service. Many of those calls are COVID-19 related.

"We have been doing a lot of zoom meetings, like a lot of other people in the world, and they're a lot different especially if you have Zoom after Zoom after Zoom meeting," Niederhauser said.

The CDC recognizes this form of burnout. Coping tips for front line workers who are feeling "compassion fatigue" include:

  • Talking openly about how the pandemic makes you feel.
  • Taking breaks from a shift to stretch, rest and check in with supportive coworkers, friends or family members.
  • Exercising.
  • Eating a healthy diet.
  • Keeping a consistent daily routine.
  • Using mindfulness techniques.

Dean Niederhauser said that University of Tennessee nursing students learn about the importance of stepping back and checking in with their mental health in classes. That lesson will be expanded now.

RELATED: 'It's okay to ask for help' | Stress during covid and how to cope

"We know that if we take care of our healthcare working workforce, they're going to be better able to take care of the patients," Niederhauser said. "We try to get that started while they’re in schools because being educated as a nurse is stressful and long hours and maybe a little different than what their peers in college are doing."