How can the healthcare industry best care for the mental health and well-being of frontline providers and clinicians?

An astounding majority of providers working on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic are facing a mental health crisis. Many are experiencing new levels of stress and anxiety brought on by a diversity of factors such as the threat of personal illness and, in many cases, the necessity of working without the personal protective equipment (PPE) they need.

COVID-19 Brings Extra Stress for Healthcare Professionals

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, healthcare workers already faced higher levels of stress than workers in other industries, according to several studies. But the COVID-19 crisis, which has infected more than 10 million people around the world and killed more than 500,000 people globally, has brought additional stressors for healthcare workers. Unlike healthcare workers who must care for those injured in a school shooting or other high-stress situations, those caring for COVID-19 patients face a direct threat of personal infection—as well as the threat of bringing the virus home to their own families. Providers whose facilities lack adequate beds, ventilators or PPE to care appropriately for COVID-19 patients also deal with a distinct sense of helplessness. In many cases, healthcare workers are being forced to make previously inconceivable medical decisions, such as which patients should receive lifesaving equipment—and their decisions may haunt them for years, according to the The BMJ.

During the early days of the pandemic, one study of 1,257 healthcare workers in 34 Chinese hospitals found that a considerable number reported symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia and distress, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Healthcare Industry Can Help Protect Workers’ Mental Health

As the coronavirus outbreak continues, with many countries experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases, educated and experienced healthcare workers remain crucial to keep up the fight. To keep caring effectively for patients and fighting the virus, clinicians must remain not only physically healthy but also mentally healthy as well. The healthcare industry can and should take practical steps to preserve the health of its workers and care for the mental health and well-being of essential front-line providers and clinicians.

  1. Identify at-risk healthcare workers. Clinicians who cared for patients during the 2003 SARS outbreak reported an increase in long-lasting mental health impacts such as burnout, psychological stress and post-traumatic stress, according to a study in Emerging Infectious Diseases, a journal published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Rather than waiting to see if today’s COVID-19 nurses and doctors experience similar issues, healthcare leaders can proactively seek to identify those who may be at risk. For instance, leaders could periodically survey employees about their mental health or ask managers to conduct one-on-one conversations with their staffers about how they’re managing the stress.

By taking time to ask questions, leaders can show workers they are concerned about mental health and open up the conversation for potential help or mental health services to prevent long-term problems.

  1. Offer practical support. In addition to providing PPE and other measures to protect healthcare workers’ physical health during the pandemic, employers should also provide support to protect their mental health. That may mean reducing the intensity of work by offering extra time off or adding staff to spread the workload. It may also mean making mental health counselors available to staffers or providing educational information about how to protect your mental health, such as by getting enough sleep, exercise and proper nutrition.
  2. Keep track of healthcare workers’ mental health responses to prepare for future outbreaks. Resiliency is common among healthcare workers, but they are human and they need the same psychological support that all people need during tumultuous times. For instance, after the SARS epidemic, up to 57% of healthcare workers in the line of fire reported significant emotional distress, according to Emerging Infectious Diseases. They attributed their distress to quarantine, fear of contagion, concern for their families, job stress, interpersonal isolation, perceived stigma and attachment insecurity.

Data from previous outbreaks can help today’s healthcare workers and their employers prepare for the potential fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. But it’s important for the industry to continue recording and analyzing data related to healthcare workers’ mental health throughout and following this crisis. By doing so, the industry can work to develop evidence-based prevention and treatment tools to improve healthcare responses and protocols during future outbreaks. With good data, the healthcare industry might be able to develop interventions that can help prevent long-term psychological trauma and effectively treat lasting distress among healthcare workers.

By working to preserve the mental health of nurses, doctors and other healthcare providers, the industry can protect its most valuable asset—its trained staff. As a result, with healthy, mentally strong providers, the industry can provide better healthcare to individuals around the world who are fighting infectious outbreaks.

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