John B. Herman, MD, associate chief of the Mass General Hospital Department of Psychiatry and medical director of the Mass General Brigham Employee Assistance Program (EAP), offers reflections on the emotional impact of COVID-19 at work and at home, hopefulness looking forward, and some day-to-day practical tips on coping and self-care.

What have you observed regarding the emotional impact of COVID in the workplace over the last year?

In the early days so little was scientifically known about the virus, much less about how to protect and defend ourselves from infection. We were afraid for our families, for our patients, and of course for ourselves. Would we get infected? Would we bring the infection home? Would the hospital run out of protective gear, or even its ventilator supply? How should we support and care for our own front-line staff? Would the curve of COVID’s alarming spread ever flatten?
As spring of 2020 arrived, our science began to catch up, the rate of infection finally decreased, and confidence began to blossom. A COVID blood test that was at first hard to obtain and could take as long as two weeks for a result became available, and with a 24-hour turnaround! Summer arrived and research demonstrated that a vaccine might be on the horizon, something that only months earlier was considered impossible. By December a vaccine miraculously arrived, and then another, and they were made available, first to our most vulnerable caregivers, and then more widely. As employees began receiving vaccines the burden of fear that had been weighing so heavily on our shoulders began to lift. So, too, did our spirits. As springtime arrives, and most of our workforce has received two shots, activities are beginning to “normalize,” reflecting a safer, less stressful world.
Yet for many of us the exhaustion and fatigue of the last year has dulled our senses and drained our enthusiasm. As a recent New York Times article describes it, many of us find we are mentally in a fog, a place that’s not quite biologic depression or anxiety but neither are we flourishing: We are “languishing,” experiencing a “dulling of delight, a dwindling of drive.”

How can we lift ourselves out of that state?

Many great ideas and creative energy have been applied addressing this problem, first to recognize and “label” this state and then to offer solutions. Most are simple, and what your grandmother might have suggested: taking a long and vigorous walk in nature, refreshing your relationships with friends and, especially, family. Nothing restores the spirit of a grandparent more than embracing a grandchild! Spending a deliberate minute or two every day counting one’s blessings, remembering how much there is to be grateful for. Yoga. Meditation. Get enough sleep!

What would you say to staff who tried some of these things and still ‘languish’?

I would say: Try something else! Talk to friends about what works for them. Check out the EAP website, a compilation of scores of ideas, resources, apps, websites, readings, streaming videos, etc., all focusing on well-being. One recently developed program is called the Buddy Program. And if you find yourself in too much emotional pain, talk to your primary care physician or schedule a visit with the EAP by calling 617-726-6976.
In its entire 210-year history, the Mass General response to COVID may represent its finest hour. We remain strong, a beacon of hope for our employees and patients, for our community and even, by its example and scientific contributions, the world. There is much to be proud of.