For the last few months, people have focused on flattening the curve of COVID-19 cases. During this time, front-line workers have experienced increased levels of stress, anxiety, and trauma.
In the short-term, treatment plans could focus on therapy, interventions, and medications tailored to the individual. But clinicians and health care organization should prepare to help front-line workers for the long-term as well. In a recent Science article, Dr. Roy Perlis, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, said the second curve we’re going to have to flatten is the mental health consequences of the pandemic.
Without adequate support, the mental health consequences could be devastating for this population. In a USA Today article, Debbie Minsky-Kelly, a social work professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin, said that health care workers’ trauma — if left unchecked — could resurface when their caseloads lighten or when they have to think about their experience.
Are health care organizations providing enough support?
Many hospitals are launching mental health initiatives to protect health care workers from serious mental health fallout after months of fighting this virus. For example, in late March, Mount Sinai hospitals in New York City ramped up initiatives by offering a 24/7 mental health crisis line and one-on-one counseling. It also started a wellness and resilience center that tracks staffers’ long-term mental health.
Although some hospitals are providing mental health resources, health care workers may not take advantage of them. They are busy, stressed, and tired. And despite their desire to help others, they are often not good at asking for help.
Even if they did ask for help, many of them may not receive it. According to Bain & Company’s latest survey of U.S. health care workers, nearly two-thirds of them are not getting additional mental health resources to cope with the stress of COVID-19.
In the forthcoming months, health care organizations must prioritize front-line workers mental health. They should create and ensure resources to support this group.
Tips for managing and supporting front-line workers’ mental well-being
The American Medical Association (AMA) released a set of resources for managing front-line professionals’ mental health and practical strategies for health system leadership to use to support front-line workers during the pandemic.
These resources include the following self-care tips for front-line professionals:
- Don’t feel guilty for experiencing stress and the feelings that go along with it
- Use coping strategies such as getting enough sleep, exercising, and staying connected with family and friends
- Use meditation apps such as Headspace
- Monitor themselves for symptoms of depression or stress disorder such as prolonged sadness, intrusive memories, and difficulty sleeping
- Take breaks from the news and social media
- Remember the importance and meaning of their work
ACA also urges health care leaders to prioritize the front-line workers’ mental well-being as much as their physical safety. They suggest the following possible strategies:
- Provide online toolkits
- Assign therapists to strategic locations (e.g., cafeteria, staff lounges)
- Adjust staffing procedures and schedules (where possible)
- Offer access to psychosocial support
- Monitor and review staff members’ well-being
- Make debriefing a regular routine
- Create an environment of open communication
With the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 outbreak later this year, front-line workers are facing more than a year of ongoing increased stress. Dr. Aisha Terry, a Washington, D.C., emergency physician and board member of the American College of Emergency Physicians, recently told USA Today that “things cannot go back to business as usual after COVID-19.” Instead, she stresses that the mental health of health care workers has to be addressed in a definitive way.