Career advice

We’re in a global public health crisis and it’s okay to say you’re not okay

Tips for coping with the emotional fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic 

Picture: iStock

When I was a child, two things happened every day when my dad came home from work.

The first was that our pet dachshund would get so excited she often had an accident, much to the amusement of my brother and me, and the second was that, when asked, dad would always say his day had been ‘fine’.  

Nowadays, opening up about how you feel is encouraged, but it can still be hard

Although I didn’t realise it at the time, dad was doing that classic British thing of putting on a brave face, regardless of what had happened during the day. Fortunately, in recent years there has been a growing movement encouraging us all to be more honest and to accept that ‘it’s okay not to be okay’.

But opening up and showing your vulnerability can still be hard, especially when everyone around you seems to be coping ‘fine’.

Social media is full of stories about the different ways people are coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. While we are all doing our best to follow government guidelines on social distancing and self-isolation, nurses and other front-line healthcare staff are having to balance this with clinical duties.

These are extreme times, so it's no surprise if you experience a huge range of emotions

These are extreme times, and no amount of education or clinical expertise will have fully prepared you for nursing during COVID-19. It’s perfectly normal to feel stressed and scared, or to experience a huge range of emotions in a short space of time.

It is important to remember that whatever you are feeling, it’s okay to feel this way. And while you may feel like you aren’t coping, you are probably doing a lot better than you think you are. As the World Health Organization said in March: ‘Stress and the feelings associated with it are by no means a reflection that you cannot do your job or that you are weak.’

View our COVID-19 resource centre

As with every journey in life, your path through the next few months will be unique to you. People cope with things in different ways, so if your coping strategies differ to those of your colleagues, it doesn’t mean that you, or they, are wrong.

Draw up a checklist that promotes self-care 

Instead of wasting precious energy judging yourself, try to create a simple checklist that can help and nurture you. There is no ‘pandemic coping list’ so all we can do is look at what has helped us through challenging times in the past.

I’m sure you are familiar with the ‘rights’ of medication administration. Here’s a suggested list for your ‘rights’ during the COVID-19 pandemic

  • Right fuel You may not be eating the most nutritious meals when on shift, and the constraints of personal protective equipment (PPE) can make it even harder to maintain hydration. But it is important to keep eating and drinking when you can, and to take your breaks. When you are not on shift, take the time to refuel as healthily as you can, but don’t beat yourself up if you crave some comfort food too. 
  • Right rest For body and mind. Although you will feel exhausted, you may find it harder to sleep. This is normal but try to maintain your sleep routine and rest your body. Take a mental break from what’s happening by limiting your time on social media or looking at the news.
  • Right connections You can’t control who you spend your time with at work, but you can when you are off duty. You may have heard of the ‘drains and radiators’ analogy for different types of people – now is not the time to be someone's ‘drain’. Wherever possible, spend your time connecting with the ‘radiators’ in your life, the people that nurture you and make you feel good about yourself.
  • Right energy It is important to switch off and recharge your batteries, but don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself. Meditation or yoga, for example, can be effective coping strategies, but you don’t have to force yourself to do these. Now is the time to be kind to yourself, so practise what has worked for you in the past.
  • Right focus As tempting as it is, avoid unhelpful coping strategies such as excessive alcohol intake or eating too much junk food to blot out thoughts or feelings. When the initial buzz has gone, you will still have to find other ways through.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help 

You know yourself better than anyone and sometimes self-care may not be enough. That’s okay too, so if you aren’t eating, sleeping or managing your emotions well, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

You should have access to dedicated support through your employer which you are entitled to use. Maintaining your own health and well-being is just as important as looking after your patients, so please make sure you get help if you need it.

Do you need support?

Mandy Day-Calder is a life/health coach with a nursing background. She runs a healthcare training company