Written by Bronwyn Threlkeld-Wiegand, LISW, Employee Assistance Program

The impact of the pandemic

The CDC says “The outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) may be stressful for people. Fear and anxiety about a disease can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children”. The University of Iowa supports its community as we return to work during this unprecedented public health crisis by offering mental health support in person and online to its students, faculty, staff and their families.

Who this is for

Anyone in the position to care for someone else and of course, ourselves/us.  Working parents, single parents, student parents, adult children caring for aging family members, siblings caring for siblings or other family or a paid helper who regularly looks after a child or a sick, elderly, or disabled person.  The largest concerns are rooted in the 1) social isolation or loneliness of the caregiver and the 2) burnout of the caregiver.  

Why this assistance is needed

When we find ourselves in a situation where our happiness is suffering, the “oxygen mask rule analogy is helpful.  Help ourselves first and then help those around us.

  1. Social Isolation or Loneliness: Social isolation has increased during COVID-19 as many people are required to stay home. Some people have become adept at connecting with people though the internet while others have not.  Social isolation can be defined as a state of complete or near complete lack of contact with society.  Loneliness is a sadness regarding the perception of lack of friends or close connections but can be also be experienced in the presence of others or for example by 24/7 contact with people (family or friends) with whom you receive no break (as experienced in the current quarantine).   Harvard Business Review’s Vivek H. Murthy, former Surgeon General of the United States, wrote, “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.”
  2. Burnout: To avoid burnout, managing our self-care is key to maintaining our subjective well-being; our physical health, and our mental health. It requires consciously planning to include time in our day to attend to our own needs and make that time a priority. If we don’t, we eventually won’t be able to care for others.  Within the topic of burnout, there is also a lesser known category, Representational Burnout.  

Representational Burnout refers to the stress, fatigue and exhaustion of being the only person of a particular identity within a certain environment. This kind of burnout affects anyone who identifies as the “only one” in their given environment and the resultant stress of having to represent.  Colleagues must help by going further than being an ally which is defined as those of us who excel at self-education regarding BIPLOC issues to being an  ‘accomplice’ which requires us to bring actions to our words.  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/26/how-white-americans-can-fight-racism

Know the signs of burnout 

  • Exhaustion: Feeling physically and emotionally depleted. Physical symptoms may include headaches, stomachaches, and appetite or sleeping changes (link to sleep resources)
  • Isolation:  People with burnout tend to feel overwhelmed. As a result, they may stop socializing and confiding in friends, family members, and co-workers.
  • Escape fantasies:  Dissatisfied with the never-ending demands of their jobs, people with burnout may fantasize about running away or going on a solo-vacation. Some may turn to drugs, alcohol, or food as a way to numb emotional pain.
  • Irritability:  Burnout can cause people to lose their cool with friends, co-workers, and family members more easily. Coping with normal stressors like preparing for a work meeting, driving kids to school, and tending to household tasks also may start to feel insurmountable, especially when things don’t go as planned. (Link to mindfulness/guided imagery apps)
  • Frequent illnesses.: Burnout, like other long-term stress, can lower your immune system, making you more susceptible to colds, the flu, and insomnia. Burnout can also lead to mental health concerns like depression and anxiety.

Burnout is by product of working (with intensity and without breaks) in all aspects of life (work, school and family life). Burnout is experienced within our family system, as students and graduate students and as workers.   As you notice any of the symptoms listed above consider taking an assessment and know there is free counseling available to you on the University of Iowa campus.

Practical options to use to help you manage the impact of the pandemic

Free Counseling for faculty/staff and their families with the University of Iowa Employee Assistance Program and free counseling for students at the University Counseling Services.   

For direct care workers, the trauma of witnessing and working with trauma can create a phenomenon known as ‘second victim’.  “SECOND VICTIMS” are defined as anyone working in direct care who may have had multiple losses or have experienced one big event.  John Hopkins has a RISE program which is rooted in peer support for the second victim in the hospital setting.  Responders are trained in psychological first aid.  The 5 Principles of Psychological First Aid are: 1) Rapport and Reflective Listening; 2) Assessment of needs; 3) Prioritization; 4) Intervention and 5) Disposition.  The University of Iowa utilizes a COPE team.  The COPE Team is available to staff that have experienced a work-related event that may challenge their ability to cope. The COPE Team can be reached at UIHC-COPE@healthcare.uiowa.edu or by calling Jeremy Hudson 319-356-2758.