Nurses experiencing more burnout, stress as 3rd wave takes toll

·3 min read
Laura Crich works in the emergency department at The Ottawa Hospital's Civic campus. She said the pandemic has taken its toll on health-care staff who've experienced a lot of long days with very sick people. (Submitted by Laura Crich - image credit)
Laura Crich works in the emergency department at The Ottawa Hospital's Civic campus. She said the pandemic has taken its toll on health-care staff who've experienced a lot of long days with very sick people. (Submitted by Laura Crich - image credit)

An Ottawa nurse is speaking out about what she's experienced throughout the pandemic — and the third wave in particular — in hopes people continue to take precautions to avoid a fourth.

Ottawa's key COVID-19 indicators have been on a downward trend since reaching new heights at the end of March.

Still, the third wave has taken its toll on health-care workers who have been stretched thin, especially as hospital admissions rose significantly and patients were transferred among hospitals throughout the province.

"We have had several patients in their 20s who have had to be intubated, who have had to have chest tubes as a result of COVID and who have needed ICU admission," said Laura Crich, a registered nurse at The Ottawa Hospital's Civic Campus.

Crich said it's been challenging to see not only younger patients who are "extremely unwell," but also entire generations of families hit hard by the illness.

That's sometimes left patients with no support and no one to bring them items from home, Crich said, because everyone in their family is just as sick as they are.

"[It's] very overwhelming," she said. "And something I've seen a lot more of in the third wave."

Laura Crich works in the emergency department at The Ottawa Hospital's Civic campus. She said the pandemic has taken its toll on health-care staff who've experienced a lot of long days with very sick people.
Laura Crich works in the emergency department at The Ottawa Hospital's Civic campus. She said the pandemic has taken its toll on health-care staff who've experienced a lot of long days with very sick people.(Submitted by Laura Crich)

While there's been a palpable drop in fear among her colleagues since they were vaccinated, Crich says they're still carrying a lot of the emotional baggage that comes with spending hours with individual patients.

"I think nurses are experiencing a lot more burnout and stress trying to manage, you know, just the heightened level of fear and anxiety and anger in patients," she said.

"We take on a lot of that."

'Unrelenting' stress leading to burnout

The trauma front-line health-care workers are experiencing can pose a significant challenge, said Michael Seto, research director at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre.

Seto has studied workplace exposure to stress and its effect on health-care staff, including how being exposed to violence, injury or fear for one's life can lead to PTSD.

He and his fellow researchers found chronic stress can lead to PTSD symptoms and other mental health conditions, which tended to be worse in nurses.

Seto said he suspects the pandemic has only exacerbated the effect of vicarious trauma, which can occur when nurses see patients go through traumatic experiences.

"There's always been exposure to those kinds of serious injury or death. I think what's different ... is this idea of cumulative exposure," he said. "When it's a higher frequency, or there's kind of no break [and] it's unrelenting, that kind of cumulative exposure can really have a large impact."

Michael Seto has researched how exposure to trauma at work can have an effect on health-care workers, with some developing symptoms of PTSD, depression and anxiety.
Michael Seto has researched how exposure to trauma at work can have an effect on health-care workers, with some developing symptoms of PTSD, depression and anxiety.(Zoom)

Seto suspects the true effect may not be known until this third wave is over.

"When you're under a really tight deadline at work or under a lot of stress or a lot of pressure, you know, you sort of rise to it. You're staying up really late, you're not eating well," he said.

"[When that's done] it's then that you sort of collapse and you feel like you can't get out of bed."

As for Crich, she has a message for people.

"We're here and if you need to come to hospital, please do," she said. "But also, please stay home and take care of your health and your family's health by staying home."

And also, she says, get vaccinated.