COVID-19 (coronavirus) Featured

Tips for health-care workers: Coping at work and at home during COVID-19

Woman pausing to take a breath

Seemingly overnight we have found ourselves living in a new era – one where we are afraid for the health and well-being of our friends, colleagues and loved ones as well as our own. Those of us caring for patients and working in hospitals are also caring for dependent children, spouses and/or elderly parents. If there has ever been a time when we were ‘burning the candle at both ends’ – now is it.

First and foremost, remember to breathe

In a time of crisis, our flight or fight systems are in overdrive. This type of atmosphere can propel us into reactivity mode. To counteract this tendency, it is helpful to take just 3 minutes amidst the flurry to be still and quiet:

1) Close your eyes, turn your gaze inward, and direct your attention to your breath.

2) Relax the muscles around your abdomen (i.e., soften your belly).

3) Count to three as you s-l-o-w-l-y inhale, gently guiding your breath toward your navel.

4) Double the length of time to exhale if possible. You may coordinate your breath with a calming phrase such as “soft” (on the inhale) “belly” (on the exhale), or a soothing image such as a stream of warm, shimmering light.

Repeat this at least 3 times in one sitting before going about your day. If it’s possible to insert regular ‘stillness breaks’ into your day, do so. For example, you may link a stillness break to your current routine (e.g., before breakfast, lunch and dinner). The more practice you get, the more equipped you will be to use your breath to help quell a wave of fear or panic as these arise.

Manage your media exposure

Information is not innocuous. Yet at no point in our history have there been so many conduits for information – be it radio, television, computers or hand-held devices (which are often on simultaneously!). It is therefore critical to create boundaries around communications about COVID-19, modulating the ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘when’ of informational influx into your life. Of course it is necessary to read COVID-19 updates from your employer and communications from our respective professional associations and Colleges. Beyond these ‘required readings,’ it is important to be selective regarding: 1) who you listen to (e.g., health ministers, infectious disease specialists); 2) the amount and frequency of information (e.g., national news at 8 am and 6 pm); and 3) the time of day you expose yourself to news and information (e.g., 11 pm is not the time to surf the net to see the latest COVID-I9 infection count).

Get a good night’s rest

One of our greatest allies when under an inordinate amount of stress is good, old-fashioned sleep! It is important to wind down after an exhausting day at work, and clear your mind in preparation for a restorative night’s rest. Decide when you will ‘unplug’ (e.g., 2 hours before bed) and honour that limit. For those not on call, you may choose to replace your cell phone with an alarm clock so your sleep is not interrupted or you are not tempted to check your smart phone in the middle of the night. (Find more sleep tips here.)

Tend to ourselves

If there ever was a time to care for ourselves as well as we care for others, this is it. Although during a time of crisis it is often particularly difficult to make time to tend to our own well-being, every effort you put towards implementing self-care strategies (even 10 or 15 minutes a day) will improve your energy and stamina. These include: daily walks and/or exercise, enjoyable hobbies and distractions (e.g., playing or listening to music, reading fiction, drawing or painting), journaling, cooking wholesome meals, and maintaining a practice if you have one such as yoga, meditation, or martial arts.

Stay connected

The fact that this pandemic is occurring when we have more telecommunications capability than ever before is one saving grace. Many of us are fast becoming skilled in technologies we never thought we could learn, or using technology to adapt creatively to our physical distance. Remember that ‘social distancing’ has to do with being physically apart – not socially disconnected or isolated from our friends, neighbours, colleagues and extended family. These broad social ties and networks are vital to our individual well-being and sanity; those, too, need to be nurtured at this time.


At Home

Based on the idea that we can only be our best selves at work when we are feeling strong in our personal relationships, below are some suggestions for managing the rapidly changing nature of our home lives.

Teamwork is key

Families are small-scale systems currently experiencing a lot of flux. Don’t presume you are all in a similar place psychologically and emotionally especially as circumstances are changing so rapidly. Taking steps to have deliberate, calm, open communication is key. Make an effort to ‘check in’ with each other as a group regularly. What is of most concern for each member of the family at this point in time? Are you operating by the same set of rules and assumptions (e.g., how and when to sanitize; how to treat home deliveries or mail; what is ‘safe’ to do or not do; who should grocery shop and when)? Having a ‘game plan’ not only provides literal safety to the family, but it builds interpersonal trust and therefore emotional safety. Enacting the plan also helps everyone feel a little more in control at a time of great uncertainty.

Preventing conflict

Holding family meetings will help to reduce the likelihood of friction in the home. Conflicts arise when we assume others are thinking and feeling as we are, or when we assume that we know what the other person is thinking or feeling when we may not. Under normal circumstances our ability to ‘read’ close family members is generally very good, but these are not normal times. Holding untested assumptions is dangerous when circumstances are changing so rapidly. Recognize when you may be unsure and ask loved ones about their perspective on a given matter, or what they want or need at any given moment in time. By the same token, if you want something from another, it is good to be specific about what you need at this time. Having accurate knowledge about one another’s wishes and desires, and being upfront about our personal preferences and needs, opens the door to successful negotiation.

Listen to one another

In the climate of the day it is easy to be distracted by what is on the news, friends and family ‘pinging’ you, or your own worry and internal dialogue. However, distracted listening does not make for smooth relationship functioning. When your partner or child has something to say, stop what you are doing (or postpone the conversation until you can). Unfortunately, we are not used to giving our closest family members our undivided attention because our homes are not formalized communication environments like our clinics and offices are. Instead we weave in and out of interaction with family members, often while multitasking, travelling side-by side, or hollering between rooms. There is also the issue of the ever-present cell phone pulling for attention. So the next time your son, daughter or partner requests your attention, take a moment to: 1) disengage from what you are doing, 2) face the other person, 3) be present – breathe, and 4) open your mind so you may truly hear what your loved one has to say.

Kindness and humour

Whether at home or at work, ensuring we relate to one another with basic kindness and respect makes the hardships we are collectively facing not only more tolerable, but also worthwhile. Appropriate humour can also be a potent elixir in times of crisis – creating a sense of perspective and connectedness, while also relieving tension – all at once.

About the author

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Dr. Karen Fergus

Dr. Karen Fergus is a clinical psychologist with the Patient and Family Support team at the Sunnybrook Odette Cancer Centre.