Union offers free workshops to help members deal with pandemic stress

In the last two years, healthcare workers have been under tremendous pressure from the daily stresses of the pandemic. Treating patients with COVID-19 has led nurses and healthcare workers to experience repeated emotional and psychological trauma, often resulting in depression, anxiety and PTSD. Because many workers are struggling to cope with these stresses, New Jersey’s Health Professionals and Allied Employees and the AFT are partnering to provide a series of training and workshops led by the Mental Health Association in New Jersey’s presentation faculty.

stressed healthcare worker
Credit: Getty/insta_photos

There are four workshops currently available: Mental Health First Aid; Trauma and Traumatic Stress; Coping and Resiliency; and Creating and Providing Peer-to-Peer Support. All workshops are free and open to anyone who signs up. Nurses also can earn continuing education credits for attending.

“Mental health is a huge topic right now,” says HPAE President Debbie White. “The trauma that healthcare workers have suffered has caused an exodus, and it's concerning.  Because of what they’ve been through, they deserve the help and intervention.”

The workshops are designed to help workers recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma and stress. Strategies to build resilience and supply coping mechanisms in response to stress are also offered.  

“Nurses are stoic,” says White. “They are the caretakers of the healthcare system. They are used to providing care, not asking for help. They tend to say everything is OK until it's not, so we wanted to preempt any discussion and offer these workshops in the hope that our members would come.”

And healthcare workers are taking advantage of the free workshops.

The offer of continuing education credits drew registered nurse Vicki Cardenas to sign up. Cardenas has been a nurse since 1982. She works in the hemodialysis unit at Jersey Shore Medical Center in Neptune City, N.J. Cardenas says she’s doing OK but that the pandemic took a toll on her in the beginning.

“When COVID started, it was horrible,” she says, admitting that she would often cry after her shift. The pandemic transported her back to the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. “The fear was the same: putting on PPE and not knowing how [the virus] was transmitted was terrifying," she says. But now, she adds, things are much better.

Cardenas says the union has been helpful for workers during the pandemic, and the workshops offered are no different. “The union did help us. When we were short of personal protective equipment, HPAE stepped up and provided us with PPE. It was more comfortable to wear than what the hospital was giving us, and we trusted it more.”

Cardenas was pleasantly surprised by the workshops. “It was nice to listen to what others have to say and hear them share what they went through.” She says her hospital gave people a number to call if they were having a hard time, but she doesn’t think anyone took advantage of that. “They would come around with snacks too,” she says, “but a candy bar isn't going to make it all better.”

Joselino “Joe” Ulanday, a behavioral health nurse at University Hospital in Newark, N.J., works with mental health patients. He says the past two years have been overwhelming: “Patients are coming in angry and anxious. Violence against staff is on the rise and it’s every day. It’s hard on the healthcare workers.”

Ulanday sees the benefit of the workshops. “It’s kind of like therapy for healthcare workers. It’s valuable for the union to offer these workshops so we can talk about what’s going on and touch base with one another. It's also good to know that we are not alone,” he says. “This is happening, and it’s not something that we can hide from. If we don’t address it now, it will be here for years, and our generation will suffer more. We need to learn, and our old way of thinking must change. We must adapt.”

White says it was important for her union to help healthcare workers: “I don’t see employers proactively developing programs to address the mental health aftereffects of the pandemic.”

HPAE approached hospitals where members work and offered to share resources the union had created. A few hospitals have taken them up on their offer, says White. But she senses that most employers want to move on from the pandemic. “In fact, our society wants to move on—people have grown tired of hearing about COVID.”

But the mental health challenges that workers have been through need to be addressed, says White. “I see signs of trauma in our healthcare workers even though they may not see it. Some of these workshops are designed to help healthcare workers recognize signs in peers and steer them to the help they need. The signs of PTSD don’t show up until a person feels like they are out of danger. With the number of surges happening, even as recently as January of this year, nurses have not been able to relax.”

Cardenas believes workshops should be required. “If it weren't for the [continuing education units], I don’t know that I would have signed up, but I was glad that I did. Sometimes you don’t know that you’ll appreciate something until it’s there.”

White says HPAE will continue to offer the workshops and training to anyone who signs up this year. There is a plan to expand the program next year. Training activities are funded by a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to the International Chemical Workers Union Council (ICWUC) Center for Worker Health and Safety Education. The Center partnered with HPAE and the AFT, to provide funding for the development of these programs.

[Adrienne Coles]