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Protecting Healthcare Workers’ Mental Health

AFT Health Care

Healthcare professionals frequently face mental, emotional, and physical challenges in their work, but during public health crises the risk is significantly greater. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented stress and trauma for those who are fighting the virus and caring for the well-being of the public. You have been pushed beyond capacity, with increasingly heavy workloads piled on top of inadequate resources, putting your and your patients’ health and safety at risk.

Research studies conducted between May and October 2020 highlight how these stressors have affected healthcare workers’ mental health. In Mental Health America’s study, nearly all of the 1,119 healthcare workers surveyed reported feeling stressed, and an overwhelming majority reported anxiety, emotional exhaustion, sleep disturbances, and feelings of dread about work.1 And in the American Medical Association’s study of over 20,000 physicians and other workers, half reported burnout and about 40 percent reported anxiety or depression and work overload. These symptoms were highest in nurses, respiratory therapists, allied health professionals, nursing and medical assistants, and housekeepers—and also in those identifying as female, Black, or Latinx.2

Deeply concerned about these findings and reports from our members, we searched for a resource with practical supports; we found it in “Prioritizing the Mental Health and Well-Being of Healthcare Workers,” which details the adverse mental health impacts of being on the frontlines during a public health crisis and offers strategies to mitigate those impacts. As the authors explain, in addition to the stressors of empathizing with and caring for patients and families in trauma, healthcare workers experience psychological distress due to adverse work conditions and lack of social support. Prolonged exposure to these conditions increases the likelihood of burnout, moral injury, and vicarious traumatization—which can in turn lead to medical errors, organizational turnover, worsening mental illness (including depression and posttraumatic stress disorder), and higher rates of suicide, particularly for physicians, frontline workers, and first responders.

The true impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on healthcare workers’ mental health may not be fully clear until more long-term studies are completed in the coming years. In the meantime, the pandemic continues, and other public health challenges will arise. To protect yourself and your colleagues against these impacts now and in the future, it’s essential that you take measures to improve your self-care and that healthcare leaders and organizations prioritize interventions that provide you with the support you need. 

Self-Care

In “Prioritizing the Mental Health and Well-Being of Healthcare Workers,” the authors emphasize self-care as the “first line of defense” to manage the stressors associated with providing healthcare during a crisis. A variety of strategies have shown promise in improving physical and emotional well-being. Engaging in spiritual practices and relaxation and mindfulness techniques, taking breaks, establishing nutrition and exercise routines, setting healthy boundaries, and knowing where and how to ask for support can all help you find structure amid uncertainty, manage crisis-related stress more constructively, and be more present, compassionate, and effective in the care you provide others.

Proactive Prevention

Although providing care for those most vulnerable despite great personal risk is heroic, the pressure that comes with being hailed as a hero may make it difficult for you to seek support when you need it. Unlike fictional heroes, healthcare workers need help to protect mental well-being—and the tools to do so should be readily available. Resilience training and peer support groups can provide opportunities for you to receive counseling, get tools for managing stress and anxiety, and share your experiences with others. These preventive supports can increase resilience and help you thrive during crises. 

Workplace Interventions 

A positive work environment may be one of the most important factors in protecting the mental well-being of the healthcare workforce. The authors recommend that healthcare leaders and decision makers normalize discussions about mental health in the workplace; provide psychosocial support programs and training to enhance staff resilience; enact policies that protect staff from moral injury due to heavy workload, limited equipment, and ethical dilemmas; and encourage and allow opportunities for self-care that can enhance workers’ job and life satisfaction.

Health Systems Reimagined

When your mental health and well-being are protected and promoted, you are better able to provide the quality care you want for your patients. The authors argue that healthcare should be reimagined to consider the needs of workers above efficiency and economic interests. Healthcare workers should be involved in decisions about efforts to improve their well-being and job satisfaction, and leaders and decision makers should prioritize understanding and preparing for the mental health challenges healthcare workers face not only in times of crisis, but from day to day.

You play an invaluable role in keeping the public safe and healthy. Investing in your psychological well-being is one of the best ways we can say “thank you.”

Additional Mental Health Resources 

  • Mental Health America’s Mental Health and COVID-19 Information and Resources toolkit covers dozens of topics of interest for healthcare workers, including setting boundaries, dealing with sleep difficulties or emotional overload, managing frustration, experiencing compassion fatigue, and what to do when you need more emotional support.
  • The Emotional PPE Project connects healthcare workers experiencing mental health challenges because of COVID-19 with volunteer licensed practitioners who can help. Mental health services are free; practitioners are listed directory-style by state with professional profiles and specialties.

Endnotes

1. Mental Health America, “The Mental Health of Healthcare Workers in COVID-19,” mhanational.org/mental-health-healthcare-workers-covid-19.
2. S. Berg, “Half of Health Workers Report Burnout Amid COVID-19,” AMA Physician Health, July 20, 2021, ama-assn.org/practice-management/physician-health/half-health-workers-report-burnout-amid-covid-19.

[Photo: Juanmonino / iStock / Getty Images Plus]

AFT Health Care, Fall 2021
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