May 27, 2020

COVID-19 Impact: Protecting the Mental Health of Healthcare Workers

Clinician Leadership | Leadership Development | Team Development

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Healthcare workers are hurting, and the American Psychiatric Association anticipates “a great deal of post-traumatic stress” among medical professionals as the pandemic stretches. As a healthcare leader, supporting the mental health of your team is a critical part of your COVID-19 response, warn researchers.

In this post, we’ll cover mitigation tactics to help protect your own mental health and that of workers under your care.

Putting your oxygen mask on first

Each time you board an airplane, you’re reminded to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others in an emergency. “Attending to your own mental health and psychosocial well-being while caring for patients is as important as managing your physical health,” writes the American Medical Association.

You and your colleagues are likely to feel immense pressure during this time. Unaddressed fears can compound, with tragic repercussions. “If healthcare workers are constantly operating under fear, they can make mistakes,” warns Regardt Ferreira, a disaster response expert interviewed by HealthLeaders.

It’s worth noting that “stress and the feelings associated with it are by no means a sign of weakness or a reflection on your ability to do your job,” adds the AMA. Wise leaders are careful to attend to those needs, not suppress or ignore them in hopes they’ll resolve themselves.

Sources & signs of anxiety

At the start of the pandemic, leaders at Stanford Medicine hosted eight listening sessions with healthcare professionals to learn what they were most concerned about, and what they wanted from their leaders.

Responses centered around eight sources of anxiety specific to COVID-19:

  • Access to appropriate personal protective equipment;
  • Exposure to COVID-19 at work and taking the infection home to their families;
  • Slow or limited access to testing if they develop COVID-19 symptoms, along with a fear of infecting others at work;
  • Uncertainty whether their employer would support their personal or family needs if they were infected;
  • Access to childcare during increased work hours and school closures;
  • Support for other personal or family needs (e.g. food, lodging) as work hours and demands increase;
  • Ability to provide competent medical care if they are assigned to a new department;
  • Insufficient communication and access to up-to-date information.

Fear, anxiety and a sense of powerlessness are common ways these concerns show up in your team’s behavior. Rage, anger and compassion fatigue are also among the range of emotions healthcare workers are experiencing, says Ferreira.

According to researchers, acute stress reactions might show up as:

Resource: image source URL

To counter these risks, the AMA recommends teaching your team basic strategies for spotting signs of stress and discussing ways to reduce them.

Self-care tactics

Much has been published lately about personal coping strategies. We’ll list just a few in this post, drawing from advice from the AMA, CDC, and our own observations as healthcare executive coaches.

We recommend selecting a couple that resonate most with you and incorporating them into daily or weekly habits:

  • Make time for personal check-ins. Monitor stress symptoms like prolonged sadness, difficulty sleeping and intrusive thoughts. Talk to someone you trust and seek professional guidance if symptoms persist or worsen.
  • Take breaks from the news and social media. When consuming information, focus on reputable sources.
  • Remember the importance and meaning of your work. Your calling is a noble one, and your sacrifice has tremendous impact on the patients, colleagues and community you serve.
  • Stay connected; social distancing shouldn’t be social isolation. Keep in touch with your support network.
  • Make time to unwind and engage in activities you enjoy.

Ferreira points out self-care can also include reading, journaling, working out, engaging in meditation and mindfulness, and making an effort to switch off work mode when you go home. “These are all things that healthcare workers can do that are fairly easy if they are made a priority,” he explains.

How leaders can help
>> Foster communication

“At the top of the list is clear communication,” says Ferreira. Healthcare workers should be getting constant updates on COVID-19 developments and what’s happening in your organization.

Also encourage staff to speak openly, the AMA advises:

  • Provide brief, regular forums to update staff on the status of the practice and how leaders are responding to challenges.
  • Provide ways for staff to express their concerns and ask questions. Also share how you’re responding to their input.
  • Encourage peer support.

When in doubt, it’s best to over-communicate.

>> Help staff identify mental health issues and access help

As alluded earlier, your staff should have training on basic psychosocial care principles, writes the AMA. They should also know how to access help, like your employee assistance program.

At Stanford, psychological support strategies include frequent Zoom webinars and drop-ins with mental health experts and peer groups. Some people prefer to vent to friends and others have an easier time opening up to professionals they don’t know.

However you’re supporting your team’s mental health, prioritize it as much as their physical safety, says Ferreira.

>> Explore new approaches

We’ve never faced a crisis like this and shouldn’t limit solutions to what we’ve done before, writes Tait Shanafelt, MD, chief wellness officer at Stanford Medicine:

“We should not be recycling the wellness offerings of the past, as if retooled versions of those approaches [can meet] current needs. We need to approach this situation with fresh eyes, ask our people what they need, develop our response based on the needs they’ve expressed, and effectively and compassionately communicate with them.”

Reasonably, that starts with asking workers to describe their concerns. Next, respond in a meaningful way.

Modeling the behaviors you want to see

The COVID-19 pandemic will leave an imprint on every one of us. Leadership has never been more important.

As healthcare leaders, it’s time to model good mental health practices and show your team you have their back.

Additional Resources:

Headspace, the popular meditation and mindfulness app, is offering U.S.-based healthcare professionals a free subscription of Headspace Plus through 12/31/20. AMA members can get a 2-year subscription for free through AMA Member Benefits PLUS.

The American Medical Association is offering no-cost surveys to help healthcare leaders monitor the well-being of physicians and care teams during COVID-19. Access it here:

Have you considered redistributing workload to ease the stress on healthcare workers? The AMA has some ideas for making that work:

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About the author

William M. Barnes, Ph.D., MBA, PCC

William M. Barnes, Ph.D., MBA, PCC is a multi-faceted healthcare executive who brings diverse perspectives from successful leadership and clinical responsibilities. As a clinical psychologist, William spent more than 20 years simultaneously providing direct service and executive leadership at Children’s National Health Systems, where he served as Director of Community Based Adolescent HIV Research and Director of HIV Support Services.

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