Pouring from an empty cup

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FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Air Force medics are on the front lines against COVID-19, and maintaining their mental well-being is critical to keeping them in the fight.

Delivering medical care in a pandemic or other crisis creates new mental health challenges, and makes existing challenges more serious. Medics should be aware of the increased risk to their well-being, and how it could affect their work caring for patients.

One of the biggest risks for providers is burnout, or compassion fatigue.

“Burnout and compassion fatigue are real risks for health providers, especially now with so many additional stressors for people in the health field,” said Col. Scott Sonnek, Air Force director of psychological health, Air Force Surgeon General. “When you work hard, you’ve got to play hard and recharge. In this pandemic, providers are working too hard, for too long, and don’t have the balance to take care of themselves.”

Maj. Andrew Lammy, an Air Force psychologist and the mental health flight commander at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, says the pandemic contributes to the stress.

“The pandemic creates uncertainty,” Lammy said. “Health professionals risk virus exposure and bringing that home to their family. That additional risk can worsen existing stress.”

Typical symptoms of burnout in health providers include feelings of numbness, exhaustion, lack of a sense of accomplishment, and decreased productivity.

“If you are putting in more time, but not getting more output or results, that is a key sign you may be burning out,” Sonnek said. “If you feel like you are spinning your wheels, you need to change something. Providers who push themselves across their line are not helping themselves, their friends and family, or their patients.”

Sonnek says providers can help prevent burnout by taking time for themselves to keep the job from overwhelming them. However, he acknowledges this can be more easily said than done.

“Sometimes you just have to take your foot off the pedal and recharge,” Sonnek said. “Our providers are devoted to their patients and the mission, and they need to show themselves that same level of care. You can’t pour from an empty cup.

“Self-care is about habits and making sure you follow through. Eat right, sleep right, find ways to blow off steam.”

Sonnek noted that there is no silver bullet for burnout.

“Managing your energy level takes work but is worth it for you, and for your patients.”

It can be difficult for health providers to recognize burnout in themselves. The good news, says Sonnek, is that there are more resources available than ever to help cope with burnout.

“One way to help deal with burnout is to talk to your peers, friends and colleagues,” Sonnek said. “They are a good resource to share your frustrations and challenges. Any burden expressed becomes lighter.”

Sonnek noted that although some Airmen may hesitate to discuss burnout with their supervisor or leadership, it is the smart move. Getting help is a better career choice than allowing stress to build up and lead to burnout. Additionally, resources like Military OneSource or chaplains offer help with no record and no diagnosis.

Provider burnout can affect anyone in the medical field.

“I’ve experienced burnout myself,” Sonnek said. “It’s important to be mindful and aware of when we cross the line to start feeling numb. We work in high-stress environments and have a lot of pressure on us to help our patients. The pandemic heightens that stress.”

Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, there are ways health providers can maintain their mental health.

“These are scary times, but we are better prepared to handle and adapt to a pandemic than ever before, partly because we can connect virtually,” Lammy said. “We are social creatures; we are not meant to live in isolation. Today’s technology can help us create social connections while staying physically distant.”

Lammy noted that it is also important to keep doing what kept you healthy in the first place and communicate.

“Don’t just hunker down and wait for it to be over,” Lammy said. “We are the greatest military in the world. We can thrive even in these challenging times.”

If health providers feel they are sliding into a bad mental space, reconnecting to their core values can make a big difference.

“When we’re burned out, it’s often because we’ve lost our connection to why we do what we do,” Sonnek said. “Professional fulfillment isn’t always about a big smile on your face. It is more about working in the service of something important. When the job becomes overwhelming, I remind myself why I joined my profession, why I joined the Air Force, and why I find the health profession personally rewarding.”

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