Navigating the emotional impact of the coronavirus pandemic
Veterinary practices are doing an excellent job of protecting their clients, patients and staff from COVID-19, but what about the emotional toll of the pandemic?
Veterinary practices around the country have been diligent in enhancing safety and sanitation measures amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, with so much focus on protecting ourselves physically, have you paused to ask how the pandemic is affecting you emotionally? This is the question Eric Richman, MSW, LICSW, a clinical social worker at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, posed during a webinar hosted by the university on June 16.
“The emotional component can become overlooked as we focus on physical wellbeing,” he explained. “What we need to do is focus on the PEE—protective equipment for emotions—as well as physical protection.”
In a survey conducted by the American Psychiatric Association in March,1 more than one-third of Americans (36%) said COVID-19 is having a serious impact on their mental health and 59% said it is having a serious impact on their day-to-day lives. You have to assume that a percentage of your clients and staff fall into these categories, Richman said.
So, what can you do to help yourself, your staff and your clients during these trying times? “We need to create a supportive, proactive culture that includes ways for employees to express concerns and feel heard,” he said.
It starts with you
During the safety presentation at the beginning of every flight, passengers are instructed that if oxygen masks are needed, they should secure their own mask before helping others. This is not an act of selfishness, Richman explained. Before you can assist someone else, you need to take stock of your own wellbeing.
“Stress is normal, but the problem is that people often don’t know how to identify when the difficulties they are facing are beyond the normal threshold of stress,” he said. “People continuously alter the definition of what was normal for them and then they avoid seeking help.”
It’s incredibly important to assess where you are on your stress scale and recognize when you are beyond your threshold, he advised. There are several shared, added stressors veterinary professionals are experiencing as a result of the ongoing pandemic, such as the uncertainty of when it will end, fear of infection, frustration, loss of control and grief over missed opportunities. As these stressors mount, they may negatively impact your mental health and your capacity to perform your job to the best of your ability.
When faced with fear and anxiety, “we are less likely to be creative, adaptable and resourceful,” Richman explained. “We are less capable of seeking possible solutions to problems. And that becomes a big problem, especially for clinicians who are trying to put together diagnosis and treatment plans.”
Although there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and its long-term impact, Richman suggested focusing on how you react. Consider these steps:
- Create structure and predictability: Build structure into your daily life, even if it is as simple as getting up at the same time every morning. If you’re working at home, create a set schedule for when you will answer emails. These habits will help counterbalance the unpredictability of the current state of the world.
- Set boundaries: This can be difficult when working from home because you have the ability to access work well beyond normal office hours. However, “there needs to be a way for you to turn off and set boundaries for yourself,” he said.
- Get moving: Immobility often results in helplessness, Richman explained. “It’s really important to move, even if it’s simple things like walking or stretching.”
I see you, I care, you matter
There is no substitute for obtaining professional help when faced with overwhelming anxiety or depression. Yet as a colleague, friend and professional, there are many ways to offer support to those around you. Consider some of the main pillars of communication, Richman instructed:
- Express empathy toward both coworkers and clients. Practice using empathic statements, such as “I can see why you would be upset,” or “I wish you didn’t have to go through that.”
- Take the time to ask open-ended questions that will fuel deeper conversations.
- Practice reflective listening—and respond with reflective statements—so the person you are talking with knows you are hearing them and absorbing what they are saying.
- Focus on your body language and nonverbal communication so you appear open and positive.
“By using these core communication skills, every communication you have with somebody will say to them ‘I see you, I care, you matter,’” Richman explained. And these skills are not limited to in-person interactions, he clarified. Empathy and reflective listening need to be implemented over a video chats, phone calls or email correspondence, too.
“Keep in mind that you are going to falter, you are going to stumble during all this period of time,” Richman concluded. “Mistakes will be made; you’re going to have trouble with all of the requirements that are asked of you. But be accepting of yourself. Practice self-compassion and be gentle with yourself and others around you.”
- New poll: COVID-19 impacting mental well-being: Americans feeling anxious, especially for loved ones; older adults are less anxious. American Psychiatric Association website: psychiatry.org/newsroom/news-releases/new-poll-covid-19-impacting-mental-well-being-americans-feeling-anxious-especially-for-loved-ones-older-adults-are-less-anxious. Published March 25, 2020. Accessed June 15, 2020.