June 8, 2024

“It’s been a long 17 months” | Maine nurses battle burnout amidst Delta variant

A study published by EClinicalMedicine found 49 percent of 20,947 health care workers from 42 U.S. organizations experienced burnout between May and October of 2020.

Credit: MaineHealth
A study published by the journal EClinicalMedicine found 49 percent of almost 21,000 health care workers surveyed nationwide experienced burnout between May and October of 2020.

Author: Chloe Teboe (NEWS CENTER Maine) Published: 10:03 AM EDT August 16, 2021 Updated: 11:58 AM EDT August 16, 2021

PORTLAND, Maine — “Exhausting” is a word many people would likely use to describe the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the past year and a half. That feeling can manifest in a number of ways and different environments — one of them being the workplace. 

Health care is a field that has never been immune to burnout — and COVID-19 has only made that problem more significant across the state and country. A study, published by the journal EClinicalMedicine, found 49 percent of 20,947 health care workers from 42 organizations nationwide experienced burnout between May 28 and October 1 of 2020. In addition, 61 percent reported fear of getting COVID-19; 38 percent reported anxiety or depression; and 43 percent reported work overload.

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“Is been crazy. It’s been a roller coaster of a year. It’s been exciting,” Jeanne Gulnick, a Clinical Nurse II at Maine Medical Center, expressed to NEWS CENTER Maine. Gulnick is a former teacher who decided to make the career switch to nursing in the summer of 2019. She took on her role about six months before the pandemic began, changing most of life as we knew it. Personal challenges have added to Gulnick’s stress.

“I have young kids. I have aging parents. I also lost a parent during COVID, so (there are) a lot of pressures besides just my job every day,” Gulnick explained. She says she hasn’t experienced burnout to the extent that some of her coworkers have — but says she think it’s drive by high senses at the hospital and a lack of nursing staff, since there aren’t as many traveling nurses available. 

“I really have seen it in my coworkers — people saying, ‘I don’t want to go to work tomorrow. I can’t come back tomorrow — I just can’t do it,'” Gulnick relayed. 

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Meg Dionne is a registered nurse who works in the emergency department at Maine Medical Center. She says the past 17 months have been “long” — and has thought about leaving the profession on a number of occasions, although she doesn’t really want to do so.

“I’ve had a lot of my coworkers in the emergency department move on to other career paths — some of them away from the bedside completely,” Dionne expressed. She says being a nurse is one of her favorite qualities about herself — but the pressure can sometimes feel overwhelming.

“My coworkers are just too tired and exhausted from the shifts that they worked from their full-time positions to come in and work overtime,” Dionne said. She says the COVID-19 infections among staff members in the emergency department have been a big “blow” morally — and it has made it even harder to staff and care for patients. 

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Dr. Christine Hein is the Chief Wellness Officer at Maine Medical Center and also works as the Associate Director of Emergency Medicine. She says the time during the pandemic has been filled with a range of emotions — from joyful during highlights like first staff vaccinations to moments of frustration and fatigue. It’s cause for some concern, as the Delta variant continues to spread.

“It’s understood that when individuals are burnt out, one of the first things they look to do is either cut back their time or move on to something else,” Hein noted. 

She says one big challenge is keeping energy going. It’s one reason why Maine Medical Center has a peer support program for providers, nursing staff, and all members of the health care team, to provide peer support and help address feelings of burnout. Throughout the pandemic, the team has also taken on initiatives like Zoom support groups, food on units, free cooking classes, and child care credits.

“It feels like we are in kind of the middle miles of a marathon, and we just have to buckle down and keep going,” Hein expressed. 

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Dr. James Jarvis is the COVID-19 Senior Physician Executive at Northern Light Health. He has noticed some similar patterns when it comes to the morale of his health care staff.

“There is some kind of frustration on people’s behalf,” Jarvis said. “You know, we hoped we would be through this by now.”

Jarvis says he’s proud of the Northern Light Health team for persevering. He says the best thing the public can do to help out is get vaccinated, wear masks indoors in public areas, try to avoid large gatherings, and wash hands frequently. 

“I’m amazed every day about how our staff continue to go about their business, continue to care for our patients and our communities,” Jarvis remarked. 

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Northern Light Health offers an Employee Assistance Program for its workers. Angela Fileccia, the Director of Healthy Life Resources Services at Northern Light Acadia Hospital, says burnout can affect anyone. It can happen from either an extended, stressful event — or a number of stressors all happening at once. 

Fileccia says signs of burnout can include any change from normal behavior — for example, insomnia, if you usually sleep well, or eating processed foods, if you normally don’t do so. Signs can also include irritability without a specific cause or body aches and pains. To address burnout, Fileccia says it’s important to take some time for yourself each day to walk, leave your desk, or talk to a friend. It can be as simple as taking five minutes every hour to stretch. 

If you’re experiencing burnout, you can also reach out to your primary care physician for help.