Healthcare News & Insights

Next coronavirus curve to flatten: Managing your staff’s mental health

Your staff has been going above and beyond for more than two solid months treating cases of COVID-19 and containing community spread of the coronavirus. But it may be coming at the cost of their mental well-being. 

Despite any outward expressions of strength and resilience you may have seen, healthcare workers’ stress and anxiety levels are on the rise due to higher than normal patient volume, depleted supplies of personal protective equipment, concerns about contracting or unknowingly spreading the disease and the loneliness of social distancing.

In February, a survey of healthcare workers in China struggling to keep the disease in check revealed 72% had experienced symptoms of distress. About half had symptoms of depression and anxiety, and more than a third reported insomnia.

What can be done

While most hospitals offer mental health services, schools like the University of North Carolina and University of California, San Francisco have been deploying their psychiatric workforce as support volunteers for frontline healthcare workers. Their approach includes preventive measures, such as stress reduction, mindfulness and educational materials; urgent measures like hotlines and crisis support; and treatments including therapeutic telepsychiatry and medication.

The American Medical Association (AMA) has released a set of resources for managing mental health symptoms of frontline workers during COVID-19.

Some tips:

  • Use a meditation app.
  • Take breaks from news and social media.
  • Take time to eat meals – ideally, healthy food – on a regular schedule.
  • Engage in physical activity.
  • Stay in contact (with appropriate social distancing) with family and friends.

Leadership’s role

The AMA also calls on leaders to prioritize their staff’s mental well-being as much as their physical safety and to create an environment of open conversation.

In a Science magazine report, Tait Shanafelt, an oncologist and director of the Stanford Medicine WellMD Center, said it’s important for hospital workers to express any emotional and psychological challenges, and for their managers to take measures that acknowledge their concerns.

“When things are the most unpredictable, the most uncertain, the most frightening, people need to know that their leader is with them and is going to respond to them, (and) is there to look out for them above all,” he said.

And consider that mental health treatment isn’t just for times of crisis, but something that needs to remain available. Even when the COVID-19 crisis diminishes, and things start looking closer to normal at your hospital, staffers could find themselves under pressure to handle a backlog of patient demands that may have been put on the back burner as a result of the pandemic.

Because of the prolonged uncertainty brought on by the public health emergency, it’s a good idea to regularly review the effectiveness of the mental health support resources that are available to your staff and make any appropriate adjustments.

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