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  • Healthcare Worker Burnout | Substance Abuse & Other Mental Health Concerns

    young woman nurse sitting on the floor of a hospital Healthcare Worker Burnout

    In March, the nation witnessed a major societal upheaval. Hospitals became flooded, schools shut down, and millions of Americans began working from home—if they didn’t lose their jobs. 

    COVID-19 arrived in the United States at the launch of 2020, and by March, the world was a completely different place. 

    Both the CDC and the WHO have spoken to the needs of our frontline workers. They have provided resources and guidelines for seeking help. These organizations have made clear that our frontline healthcare workers will face burnout and other mental health concerns. 

    Let’s review what burnout can actually look like, what factors could contribute to this burnout, and how our healthcare workers can navigate this challenging season. 

    What Is Burnout?

    The Mayo Clinic describes burnout as a unique form of work-related stress. It is a state of either physical or emotional exhaustion that often involves a loss of identity.  

    Although this may be a common struggle, burnout is not a formal medical diagnosis. However, there are signs and symptoms of workplace burnout: 

    • becoming cynical or critical at work
    • dragging yourself to work 
    • lacking the energy to be consistently productive
    • trouble concentrating
    • feelings of disillusionment
    • lacking in satisfaction from your achievements
    • using food, drugs or alcohol to numb your frustrations or feelings
    • changing your sleep habits
    • unexplained headaches, bowel complaints or other physical ailments

    Potential Causes Of Workplace Burnout During COVID-19

    Studies suggest that workplace burnout could be the result of a pre-existing mental health condition or the result of workplace stress and anxiety alone. Whichever the case, there are a few specific causes or triggers that can affect anyone.

    Lack Of Control

    When decisions about your job are made without your knowledge or influence, it’s easy to feel helpless. Lacking the ability to voice your needs, especially in regards to your work, can be exhausting. 

    This lack of control could be a significant struggle for the millions of frontline healthcare workers facing a rapidly infectious disease that has no known cure. 


    Extreme levels of chaos or activity can cause mental and physical exhaustion. With hospitals, treatment centers, and counseling services stretched to their limit, the ever-surmounting chaos of COVID-19 can cause drastic ups-and-downs to overall work flow. 

    These extreme and unpredictable levels of activity can easily trigger anxiety and other mental health concerns like substance abuse.

    Lack Of Social Support

    Without the necessary support from friends and loved ones, an already overwhelming workload can quickly become toxic. With social distancing measures for COVID-19 still in place, it can become very difficult for our healthcare workers to get the love and support they need. 

    Since the onset of COVID-19 we have also seen our frontline hospital workers face hostility from varying parts of society. Many people fear their close proximity to infected patients, creating a barrier between our healthcare workers and a supportive society. 


    If an employee feels that the efforts they put forth are not properly compensated or respected, the work can seem valueless. 

    This inherent lack of reward can trigger employees to feel undervalued. Especially with COVID-19, many of our healthcare workers are taking on new tasks without further compensation. This consistent lack of reward can be debilitating.

    Unclear Guidance/Expectations

    A predominating factor for many healthcare workers, especially nurses, is the issue of authority or job guidance. Many employees are unsure of the new authority they possess when it comes to battling a life-threatening disease that has compromised our healthcare system. 

    There have also been varying levels of safety protocols across the nation. From state to state, the COVID-19 mandates and recommendations have been varying and complex. 

    Fear Of Exposure

    Fearing for your health and safety every day you step into work is tough. This overall fear of exposure can easily trigger mental health struggles or force you to turn to numbing substances, such as alcohol or opioids. 

    Reach Out For Help—You’re Not Alone

    We all process our traumas differently. Yet, regardless of how we process our experiences, we all need help and support to navigate our emotions. 

    We encourage that those who may be struggling reach out for the support they need. You’re not alone, and you do not have to face these unique struggles without support.

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2024 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.
    Medically Reviewed by
    Kimberly Langdon M.D.
    on August 20, 2022
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