COVID Scientists Fight To Avoid Burnout | Sciences | In-depth science and technology report | DW
For over a year, scientists and healthcare professionals have worked tirelessly to prevent people from dying from COVID-19. Pressed to produce results as quickly as possible, for many, the line between work and play has blurred.
“I feel like I’m constantly tired and running the longest marathon of my life, but I just have to keep going,” said Krutika Kuppalli, assistant professor in the division of infectious diseases at Carolina Medical University. from South. “Anytime I feel like we can get a reprieve, something hits us around the corner.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) burnout highlighted in health personnel due to the increased demand on health systems in 2019, long before the pandemic hit. He does not classify burnout as a medical condition, but as a “professional phenomenon”.
In 2019, the WHO took a broader view of a problem that is already pushing workers to the brink of collapse in countries ranging from Germany to India. He redefined burnout as a syndrome “resulting from chronic stress at work that has not been successfully managed”. It involves feelings of exhaustion, a feeling of mental estrangement from one’s job, negative or cynical feelings about work, and reduced professional efficiency.
From bullying and overtime to pressure and competition, there are a host of systemic issues affecting researchers in universities that could lead to burnout, said Zoë Ayres, analytical researcher and advocate for the UK based mental health. The fact that people are not talking about these issues also plays a role, she said.
Researchers in the medical field have been working overtime for over a year now, and exhaustion and pressure has taken its toll on some.
During the pandemic, scientists felt the pressure much more than before. An American investigation out of more than 1,100 university professors found that in 2020, 69% of respondents felt stressed compared to 32% in 2019, 35% felt angry against 12% in 2019 and 68% felt tired compared to 32% in the year last.
More than half of those surveyed had seriously considered changing careers and leaving higher education or taking early retirement.
“There are times when I feel really, really on top of the pandemic and I just want to step away from the research, but everyone has to feel that way, right?” Zoe Hyde, an epidemiologist at the University of Western Australia, said.
In addition to posting the work of her research team online, Amy Greer, Associate Professor in the Department of Population Medicine at the University of Guelph in Canada, cares for her young family.
“You sort of work all day doing a combination of things, then you put your kids to bed at night and then you work harder because the pace at which science is changing is forcing you to be able to stay on top of things.” , said Greer.
“We rely heavily on each other”
Although institutional support may be lacking, some scientists are doing their best to help each other.
“I don’t think I know a single person involved in pandemic research and response who is not overworked. And there is something to be said for solidarity in that,” said Maimuna Majumder, junior member of the faculty of the digital health informatics program. at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “We rely heavily on each other, and that helps, especially given the relentless feeling that there is always more to be done than each of us is – healthily – capable of doing.”
Hyde has found support through an online community of scientists working on COVID. It is a space where scientists can talk to each other about their feelings and express their frustrations. “I think it’s been really helpful for all of us,” Hyde said.
Work through grief
As scientists work overtime to save lives, some face the loss of loved ones.
“So many people live in constant mourning because of the pandemic,” said Majumder, “and some of the communities I belong to – healthcare workers, BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color, the ed.], first-generation Americans, et cetera – have been particularly hard hit by a seemingly endless stream of disease and death. “
Just as the United States appeared to be in control of the pandemic, India began its battle against a deadly second wave spurred by a new variant.
Kuppalli, of the University of Medicine of South Carolina, has family in India who have been ill with COVID. While keeping her job and commitments in the United States, she also tried to help her friends and family in India which was difficult with the jet lag.
“It has been very exhausting and emotionally draining,” Kuppalli said.
“Academics tend to think of academia and their research as their calling,” said Desiree Dickerson, clinical psychologist and academic mental health specialist based in Spain. “Their identity is closely linked to what they do.”
This is the case of Maria Sundaram, infectious disease epidemiologist and postdoctoral fellow at ICES in Ontario, Canada. “Personally, I really identify with the work of epidemiologists,” Sundaram said.
As someone at the start of her career, Sandaram said she wanted to be able to look back on the work she’s done in 20 years and feel like she’s done as much as she can.
“Sometimes it’s a lot and sometimes it’s not enough,” Sundaram said.
Dickerson said “micro changes” can make all the difference in someone’s day. It can be something as simple as not bringing a smartphone into the bedroom.
For Majumder, it’s painting a portrait or sitting down with a score. “Although I recognize that it is extremely difficult for me to do any of these things without feeling guilty,” she said.
A systemic problem
Short contracts, the pressure to produce articles and the tight competition for funding add to the stress of working in academia.
A survey of more than 6,300 doctoral students published by the scientific journal Nature in 2019 found that 36% of those surveyed said they sought help for anxiety or depression caused by their doctoral studies.
Mental health advocate Zoë Ayres said one of the biggest improvements would be for institutions to play a bigger role in protecting people’s mental health.
They should recognize “at the institutional level that the responsibility for dealing with mental health does not rest only with the individual, but also with the institution, in order to ensure a welcoming and safe working environment where everyone can enjoy themselves. flourish, ”Ayres said.
Academics may not be aware of other career paths or may think that changing careers means failure, Dickerson said.
This can cause those who wish to stay in academia to sacrifice other aspects of their lives to stay competitive.
“It also means they’re very easily exploitable,” Dickerson said. “If you want it enough, you will work more hours, you will sacrifice more. Or someone who ‘wants more’ will take his place.”
Dragonfly mental health, a nonprofit that advocates for prioritizing mental health in academia, has seen an increase in demand for its mental health workshops.
In 2020, they carried out 25 workshops. This year, they have already held 34.
So far, the organization has organized workshops in seven countries, reaching over 6,000 academics. Through their Ambassador program, they train people to run workshops and help them reach more countries.
“We scientists are very passionate about our work, and I know from my own experience that burnout is very, very often like a badge of honor and something we have to relearn not to do,” said Jelena Brasanac, doctoral student in neuroscience. at Charite University Hospital Berlin and Organizing Director at Dragonfly Mental Health.
The organization’s goal is to create systemic change and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues in academia.
“We really need to work on creating change, community awareness and education, and fighting stigma,” Brasanac said, “because the most important thing for people who need to help is to be able to ask for help without fear for their professional life and any other repercussions.