COVID-19 (coronavirus) Mental health

Strategies for coping on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic

health-care worker comforts colleague during pandemic

After more than a year of the pandemic, everyone is facing COVID fatigue. We are at a much different place than we were when the pandemic was officially declared.

“There are different phases of a catastrophic event,” says Dr. Ari Zaretsky, Sunnybrook’s psychiatrist-in-chief in the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Program. “Early on in a crisis there is often the ‘heroic phase,’ which we saw in March and April 2020, with people coming together, rising to the challenge of the coronavirus with a sense of ‘we are all in this together,’ working as a team against this enormous adversity, and developing positive feelings and camaraderie despite the stress.”

After many months, the pandemic is taking its toll on the mental health of people everywhere.

“It’s been an emotional rollercoaster ride and that’s created a sense of burnout and frustration,” he explains. 

Coping strategies for health-care workers

In these difficult times, Dr. Zaretsky recommends that health-care workers focus on looking after their own wellness including talking to other people in your social support system and reaching out to them in various ways.

In addition to the usual tips such as getting enough regular sleep, reducing exposure to news, eating nutritious meals, and being physically active particularly outside, here are some additional suggestions for self-care and support.

Have a work buddy: It can help to have someone at work who you are comfortable talking to and who you trust. “Choose a buddy who’s going to reach out to you and see how you are doing. Sometimes asking someone, “How are you really doing?” can be an invitation and encourage them to be more authentic if they’re struggling,” says Dr. Zaretsky.

Truly ‘talk’ to people. Texting is not the same: “Speaking to someone on a device where you can see them, talking to those in your household or communicating with colleagues safely in person, is better than texting,” Dr. Zaretsky explains. “Words on a screen cannot replace the benefits of hearing, seeing, and interacting with another human being. It is very important to be safe and follow health guidelines. It is also important to keep up communication beyond texting. There is more room for laughter, compassion, and connection when we are communicating safely face-to-face even if it is from a distance, wearing masks, or through a device that enables us to see one another.”

Be genuine and acknowledge your true feelings: Try not to diminish how you are feeling. Sometimes there is a sense of guilt for being upset during the pandemic, for example, when you are healthy or still have a job at the same time that many across the world are experiencing catastrophic loss of life and economic devastation. While compassion for others is important, being compassionate with yourself is equally important.

“Recognizing your feelings is very important but often people are afraid of that because they think it will actually make them worse. If you don’t acknowledge your true feelings there is the potential danger of becoming robotic, losing compassion for patients and burning out,” says Dr. Zaretsky. “When you at least acknowledge how you are feeling, you can then get support from other people and you can be more authentic, which is very important in terms of your own self-care and receiving the social support you need.”

Mental health resources for coping during COVID-19 from Sunnybrook experts


If you need help in an emergency, please call 911 or visit your local emergency department.

If you’re feeling like you’re in crisis or need somebody to talk to, please know that help is also available through community resources:

About the author

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Jennifer Palisoc

Jennifer Palisoc is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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