Physician wellness after COVID-19: Steps to get back to normalcy

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There are steps doctors can take to improve our mental well-being as we continue to navigate the post-pandemic world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on our mental health, with 42% of all Americans reporting depression or anxiety symptoms in December 2020, compared with just 11% the previous year.Physicians and other healthcare workers may be at higher risk for psychological distress as we must not only cope with our own feelings but must also respond to the emotional needs of our patients.A survey of healthcare workers found that 93% reported stress, 86% had anxiety, 76% reported exhaustion and burnout, and 75% felt overwhelmed. Caregivers also reported significant problems with insomnia, appetite changes, and physical symptoms like headaches and stomach pains.

While we may not be experiencing the same stressors that we faced at the beginning of the pandemic—anxiety over personal safety and the health of our family members due to a lack of PPE, financial insecurity, and “lockdown” isolation—there are constantly new challenges to overcome.Over the last year, we have been forced to develop new lifestyles, learning to working virtually, having kids at home, and avoiding in-person social activities with friends and family.

Throughout this phase, physicians have also been exposed to another challenge—public skepticism of COVID-19. Whether it is a debate about masking, vaccines, or whether or not COVID-19 is even ‘real,’ doctors must navigate a world in which acceptance of scientific authority is no longer a given. This is particularly difficult for physicians who are working on the frontline, exposed to the harsh realities of the disease.

Now that the COVID-19 vaccine is ramped up, we find ourselves in a third stage—a tentative pivot towards pseudo-normality.We are back in the office and starting to tentative engage in activities with others, all while wondering—is it really over?Are we really ‘safe?’

Fortunately, there are steps that we can take to improve our mental well-being as we continue to navigate the (hopefully) post-pandemic world.