Healthcare workers have always been faced with a high-stress job with high rates of burnout. However, with the addition of the COVID-19 pandemic this year, stress levels and mental strain have hit an all-time high. Healthcare systems are overwhelmed, and healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic are being heavily burdened both mentally and physically. They are working long hours, often in high-pressure environments caring for sick and experiencing an enhanced fear for their safety and health. A study published March 23 in the medical journal JAMA, found that of a set of 1,257 healthcare workers working with COVID-19 patients in China, 50.4% reported symptoms of depression, 44.6% symptoms of anxiety, 34% insomnia, and 71.5% reported distress. When it came to types of healthcare workers, Nurses and other frontline workers were shown to have the most severe symptoms.
There are a variety of reasons that healthcare workers' mental health is in jeopardy. Understanding these reasons can help us learn how to handle these stressors and decrease ones that can be mitigated.
1. Fear of infection
A lot of fear healthcare workers are facing, centers around inadequate amounts of personal protective equipment. This lack of protection creates a direct threat to their health and an increased and fear of being infected. Along with being worried about being infected themselves, they are also concerned about spreading infections to their loved ones. This fear can be exacerbated by the severity and lack of information on this virus, creating concern for their life as well. This worry brings us to the second reason for increased mental strain; social isolation.
2. Social Isolation
Many healthcare workers are socially isolating themselves from both public places as well as loved ones to reduce the risk of infecting others. This isolation can take a significant toll on their mental health. Social support is an essential aspect of anyone's mental health, so this prolonged isolation creates a lot of loneliness. For healthcare workers with children, this lack of end in sight creates a feeling of helplessness since they cannot provide the care for their children as they could before.
3. Psychological Pressure
Healthcare workers are no stranger to difficult decisions in the workplace. However, these types of medical decisions, along with having to provide psychological support to patients who cannot have their loved ones at their bedside with them, are compounding the mental stress put on many healthcare workers. They are trying to provide medical care and psychological support to their patients and remote support to loved ones who are increasingly frantic that they cannot be at the hospital. This combination can be too much for already taxed healthcare providers to handle.
With COVID-19 being a new virus, there is a constant influx of ever-changing information as experts try to learn how best to handle and treat this disease. This lack of knowledge can cause stress on healthcare workers and a feeling of helplessness as they do not always have a solid plan of care for every patient infected with COVID-19. Fluid plans of care also lead to a different standard of care for patients that healthcare workers are not used to, which can cause a significant amount of mental strain. Another form of helplessness can come from the hospital itself and their lack of preparedness for this pandemic and influx of patients.
Having to wrangle the choice of doing your job and protecting your and your family's health from a new and somewhat unknown virus is bound to cause degradation to anyone's mental health. Studies show increased rates of anxiety, depression, insomnia, and overall distress in front line healthcare workers. When healthcare workers face burnout and mental fatigue, patient health and safety can be put at significant risk. In order to protect both our frontline workers and the patient population and combat this mental trauma, it is vital to work towards providing adequate support, identifying those who are suffering, and working on treatments to help healthcare workers recover from the psychological issues they are facing due to the COVID-19 situation. As a healthcare system, understanding these potential issues will go a long way in ensuring that you are not only providing the best possible care for your patients, but also ensuring that your staff is taken care of.