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Pandemic Burnout: How to Cope

Pandemic Burnout: How to Cope

Ten self-care strategies to stay sane in unprecedented times

Tracy Durnan, MBA

Tracy Wieder has worked in the field of biomedical research for 30 years, starting as a lab technician, then moving into lab manager roles, lab director roles, and finally into her current role overseeing all research laboratories at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and is a recognized expert on disaster preparedness and safety.

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Many lab managers are feeling overwhelmed with supply chain deficiencies, sick employees, schedule changes allowing for coverage of suddenly absent workers, and the social distancing needs of the remaining workforce, as well as uneasy, fatigued, and anxious staff, as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. These factors are placing unprecedented demands on the time and skillset of laboratory management. Faced with problems with which they have no experience to draw upon as a reference point, the right answers can be a complete unknown. These challenges can cause already overworked lab managers to feel isolated and frightened, leaving them at risk for pandemic-related burnout. Strategies to combat feelings of isolation and fear can go a long way in avoiding feeling overwhelmed and allow lab mangers to engage in healthy leadership that preserves their own sanity. It will take discipline to put into action what we know we need to do to stay healthy, but discipline is a small price to pay for our sanity. 

Below is a list of strategies for staying sane that lab managers can use as a starting point:

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1.  Set a strict daily schedule and stick to it

If working from home, set a strict schedule for yourself just like when you work from the lab. Get up at the same time every day you work, go to bed at the same time, begin and end work at the same time. Routine is normalizing, and normalization leads to feeling less frightened and overwhelmed. 

2.  Focus on one task at a time

Even the most skilled multi-taskers get overwhelmed, and when already anxious by the volume and complexity of work on your plate, focusing on one task at a time allows you the time to think each task through and feel a sense of accomplishment, which will decrease feelings of fear and anxiety.

3. Delegation

Do you have tasks on your to-do list that others on your team are perfectly capable of doing? Do you have staff that are not only capable of doing these tasks, but they also have available bandwidth to take them on? If so, then delegate, delegate, delegate! This not only takes pressure off you, but also conveys to your staff that you trust them and count on them, which builds employee loyalty. In addition, if you are able to delegate tasks that will be a bit of a stretch for your staff, this can also stimulate their learning and creativity during these difficult times, allowing them their own career growth. Being able to relieve your own pressure while building staff morale and growth is a win-win all around. 

4.  Take outdoor breaks

Take breaks to go outside, whether at home or at work. A 10-minute break twice a day to go for a walk isn't going to have a catastrophically negative affect on your workload, but it will have a monumental effect on your wellbeing, energy, and perspective, especially in these times when we are inside way more than we are accustomed to.

5.  Speak to peers

Create a small support group for each other—people you can call when having a rough day and vice versa. You will be surprised how being there to support others can really help with your own mood. Hold zoom social events with your support group or even get together outside, socially distanced, for regular support sessions. You will all be glad you did.

6. Take advantage of peer resources

Read articles, such as this one and others; seek out webinars offered through organizations that support lab managers; attend virtual conferences on the topics of lab leadership; and check to see if your institution offers a listserv of research lab staff where you can go to ask questions and get answers. Even if a particular article or webinar does not address a problem you are currently facing, consider taking in the information anyhow as you may well find it useful down the road. You are likely facing many challenges today you would not have anticipated a year ago, so it cannot hurt to gain knowledge now that may prove helpful in the future. Participating in lab manager chat groups and listservs will also help you to feel empowered to find solutions that you my struggle to find on your own. It can be quite overwhelming to have work-related problems that you are responsible for solving when you are struggling to find these solutions. Having a place to bring these problems, where you can feel you will get quality suggestions from your peers, can be a very empowering and calming feeling. You can also get this same kind of peer support by asking questions during webinars. Wherever you seek out this kind of support, finding it will certainly help you to feel far less overwhelmed when faced with a challenging dilemma at work. You are not alone; we are not alone, lets help and support each other as a community.

7.  Educate yourself

Keep current on the facts of the pandemic. Misinformation can be scary. What does the latest research have to say about how the virus spreads? Is reinfection possible, or not? Is a vaccine coming? If so, when? How long will it take to get vaccinated once the vaccine is available? Are screening tools in the works that will lessen the burden on the vaccines by identifying the most at-risk populations? Information changes quickly about what we know about COVID-19. Some things we believed to be fact six months ago have now proven untrue. If we continue to rely on old facts and rumors, we are going to be unnecessarily frightened. Knowledge is always power, and empowering yourself with the facts in a world that seems so out of our control will help you feel less vulnerable and helpless, which will ease feelings of being overwhelmed. Sharing these facts with your staff will also help them to feel less anxious. 

8. Maintain your team’s morale

Maintaining your team's morale can help to maintain your morale as a leader, too. Your team needs you and you need them. Have regular team meetings, virtually or in person. Choose themes for your team meetings: crazy hat day, orange clothes day, favorite sports team day, dress like the boss day, etc. This allows you and your team the opportunity to be creative and a little silly and to laugh, together. We all know how powerful laughter can be for elevating mood and morale.

9. Seek out professional help

If all else fails—or even if it does not—seek out professional help. Be mindful of the moods of those around us and reach out to others as well if you notice they are struggling. Kindness and humanity in these times goes a long way toward making us all feel less alone. Be aware of the resources available to you through your employer to help with mental health concerns and make sure your team is not only aware of these resources, but also encourage them to take advantage of them, as you should as well. 

10. Just breathe

Finally, breathe! A few minutes a day of deep breathing in a quiet and peaceful spot can help to calm your nervous system down and allow you to keep pushing through. Recognize the depth of the unprecedented times we find ourselves in and cut yourself a break, while taking a few good, deep, calming breaths. Keep perspective; this, too, shall pass.