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Supporting the mental wellbeing of healthcare workers during COVID-19

Introduction by Croakey: Doctors’ organisations last week welcomed an announcement from Health Minister Greg Hunt on Thursday that 40 million more masks and greater mental health support will be made available for healthcare workers.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) particularly urged rural and remote healthcare workers to look after themselves and take advantage of the new mental health resources, saying they may experiencing great uncertainty, pressure and abuse in the pandemic, while having far less service access than their colleagues in metropolitan areas.

The need for mental health supports and strategies — both individual and structural —that may assist frontline workers is outlined below in a post from social researcher Dr Penelope Robinson. It was inspired by a Twitter thread in which her colleague Professor Julie Leask asked about resources/studies supporting the mental health of healthcare professionals during an emergency.


Penelope Robinson writes:

After the devastating bushfires of summer, Australians seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief as the smoke cleared, the weather cooled, and autumn arrived.

However, the relief was short-lived when, in March, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

Since then, there has been an outpouring of public support and recognition for healthcare workers and other essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the UK, thousands of citizens regularly applauded the hard work of nurses, doctors and other National Health Service (NHS) staff, in “Clap for Carers”.

In Australia, a campaign of kindness called “Adopt a Healthcare Worker” took off in March and now has tens of thousands of members in its Facebook page offering to help healthcare workers who need assistance. Australian celebrities joined forces to say #ThanksAussieNurses.

Over the Easter long weekend UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, himself recovering from COVID-19,  released a video in which he praised the nurses and other NHS healthcare staff who saved his life. He commended the health professionals for their courage, devotion, thought and precision.

Public displays of gratitude and admiration for the hard work of healthcare professionals are warranted.

However, staff on the frontline are at high risk of suffering mental health issues as a result of the pandemic, both during and in the longer-term.

The pandemic poses mental health risks for everyone, but frontline health workers are particularly at risk given their exposure to high levels of stress and direct daily contact with patients.

The psychological and emotional wellbeing of healthcare workers is largely overlooked in the media.

Health care workers face a range of difficult and challenging conditions; facing the risk of infection, seeing patients suffering and dying; not always having adequate PPE and other resources; or not being able to hug their families when they finish work for the day.

Australian nurses have reported having their hours reduced since the pandemic began.

In a recent Chinese study, a considerable proportion of frontline healthcare workers reported experiencing depression, anxiety, insomnia and distress.

Research from previous disease outbreaks, such as SARS in 2003, shows that psychological distress of healthcare workers can prove to be a long-term problem, well after the initial health emergency has passed, with frontline workers suffering ongoing psychological symptoms such as trauma and stress.

Individual action

So, what can healthcare professionals working on the coronavirus frontline do to support their mental and emotional wellbeing?

Below are some strategies that healthcare workers can adopt when faced with challenging situations. These guidelines from Phoenix Australia, Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health offer some practical tips to help manage stress and anxiety:

  • Maintain a healthy diet, exercise and sleep regime.
  • Talk to loved ones about worries and concerns.
  • Engage in hobbies and enjoyable activities.
  • Be prepared (e.g., develop a personal/family preparedness plan in case you are quarantined or need to self-isolate).
  • Avoid or reduce the use of alcohol and tobacco.
  • Limit media exposure.

Along with the suggestions above, there are small, short-term actions that healthcare workers can undertake while on the job, to help alleviate stress, including to:

  • Listen to a short mindfulness or meditation track during your commute or lunchbreak.
  • Take 30-40 seconds to focus on taking calm, slow concentrated breaths.
  • Go for a brisk walk.

Structural support

There are also structural things that governments and health care institutions can address to support the wellbeing of healthcare workers.

For instance, making sure there is an adequate supply of personal protective equipment for all staff, establishing mental health strategies for the workplace and ensuring sufficient staff numbers and break times.

Researchers in the UK have outlined measures that healthcare managers must put in place to protect the mental health of their staff.

Leaders and healthcare managers must also make sure they follow good risk communication strategies, such as acknowledging and addressing workers’ concerns promptly and with empathy, and being careful to communicate clearly and regularly with all staff.

As for the rest of us, the tips and strategies listed above (and in the links below) can benefit everyone, not just those facing COVID-19 head-on.

Make sure you get plenty of sleep, healthy food and physical activity. Mindfulness techniques can help alleviate stress and anxiety. Stay home as much as you can but stay connected to family and friends on the phone/email/online chats.

And let us all be mindful of the challenges faced by healthcare workers during this pandemic.

Offer to help an essential worker if you can. Stick to the social distancing measures so that we can help prevent the spread of the disease.

Let’s acknowledge and give thanks to all healthcare workers: nurses, doctors, medical reception and administration staff.

And let’s not forget all the other essential frontline workers: cleaners, delivery drivers, supermarket staff, teachers, public transport workers.

We salute you and we thank you.

Other links:

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2013 conferences
Australian Centre for Health Services Innovation Forum 2013
Australian Health Promotion Association Conference 2013
Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
CRANAplus Conference 2013
FASD Conference 2013
Health Workforce Australia 2013