Tears, nightmares and exhaustion: Burnout is the new normal for hospital workers

A nurse helps a doctor put on his PPE.
A nurse helps a doctor put on his personal protective equipment before performing a procedure on a coronavirus patient at Regional Medical Center in May in San Jose, Calif. Many hospitals around the country, including in Minnesota, are dangerously full, stretching medical staff as they try to care for as many patients as possible.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images file

As the weeks go by with hospitals beds full and staff in short supply, doctors and nurses are under incredible pressure.

“I’m tired,” said Dr. Carolyn McClain, who works in the emergency room at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, Minn. “It's a marathon and it's just sometimes exhausting to go to work.”

Earlier this week, the federal government released data showing hospital capacity and bed use at a hospital-by-hospital level.

As NPR reported: “The dataset — which includes capacity reporting from hospitals in 2,200 counties in the U.S. — spotlights areas where hospitals are getting dangerously full. In 126 counties, the average hospital is at least 90% occupied, according to an analysis of the data by the COVID-19 Hospitalization Tracking Project. The states with the most counties above this threshold are Kentucky, Georgia, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Texas.”

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The nonstop work and stress is taking a toll on medical workers’ mental and physical health, McClain said.

She told MPR News host Cathy Wurzer that part of challenge is how difficult it can be to connect with patients, many of whom are critically ill, because of the layers of protective gear providers must wear to keep themselves safe.

“It’s at the time when — more than any time in people’s lives — they need to be connected with,” she said.

The emotional toll of that experience can be immense, and McClain has been meeting with a group of her peers regularly to process the burnout that they have been experiencing.

She’s worried about providers choosing to leave the profession when the pandemic ends.

“I think if you have the opportunity to do something else after this is all over, people will do it,” she said.

Listen to the full interview by clicking the audio player above.