Managing Uncertainty as a Health Care Worker

A health care worker in a hospital setting

Dealing with uncertainty happens more than we realize, but managing it in our everyday lives is often automatic, so we don’t give it much thought. But in a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, when health care providers are dealing with it both personally and professionally, there is increased stress.

When fear and uncertainty occupy your mind, it is easy to get caught up in “what if” and “all or nothing” thinking, leaving you feeling overwhelmed or stuck. When this happens, it is helpful to remember that uncertainty is something you’ve managed in various settings, including as a health care provider. You have likely helped patients with the fear surrounding their illness or treatments, so try to channel some of the ways you have helped your patients manage their uncertainty.

Planning can help ease your worry associated with this health crisis, but be mindful not to obsess over preparations. If you were planning a backpacking trip in the mountains, you would pack the essentials and a few extra items to cover the unexpected, but you would not overload your pack so much that you could not make the journey comfortably. Instead of alleviating anxiety, over-planning can actually fuel it. So plan and prepare enough to be practical. This might mean professional preparations such as learning to use personal protective equipment, practicing stress management strategies or stocking up on groceries and medicine at home.

Information on COVID-19 is fluid and can change daily, so it is understandable to get hyper-focused on the information coming at you. But there is a risk of information overload, which can increase your fear and uncertainty. After a day’s worth of news stories, social media and articles, ask yourself what and how much was truly useful to you. What information changed your actions in a way that was useful to you, your family or your patients? Limit or reduce the amount of information you are taking in, where and when you can, to make sure you are focusing only on the information you need to.

It is relatively easy to imagine the worst-case scenario in times of stress, so while you are using your imagination anyway, allow yourself to image positive outcomes as well.

Lastly, the most important thing is to savor what’s important to you—those you are working hard to keep safe—your patients, the people around you whom you love most and the joys in your daily life. It is easy to get caught up focusing on what is (understandably) so challenging right now, at the expense of also being fully present with the aspects of your life that are fulfilling and positive. So make sure you balance all the stress by stopping to smell the roses, as well.

Shiri Macri MA, LCMHC, is a Licensed Mental Health Clinician for the D-H Employee Wellness Program.

Here an additional source for talking to your children:

  • "I am a Health Care Worker During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Answering My Child's Questions about Going to Work," by Susan Franks, MS, CCLS, a senior child life specialist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. You can view a PDF of her tips here.