Even before the pandemic, being a healthcare worker was one of the most emotionally demanding jobs. According to a 2019 survey, five out of the top ten most stressful jobs were in the healthcare field: surgeon, nurse, paramedic, anaesthesiologist, and physician. Of course, if you are passionate about helping people, these jobs are also incredibly rewarding but, even so, the stress that’s associated with them shouldn’t be neglected.
Because of the pandemic, the pressure of being a healthcare worker became even tougher, pushing the entire system to its limit. If mental health was a concern in the past, now it’s even more important to understand the negative impact that COVID-19 has had on NHS staff and explore the healthy ways of coping with the pressure.
Why does the COVID-19 crisis put a strain on the mental wellbeing of healthcare workers?
From the first wave in spring 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a quick evolution, and the exponential growth of confirmed cases took the public healthcare system by surprise. From an organisational standpoint, healthcare workers were faced with new challenges that increased workplace stress, at times causing chaos:
- Insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) in the first days of the pandemic
- Lack of testing for healthcare staff
- Unclear protocols regarding the treatment of COVID patients and providing remote care
- At the same time, the huge influx of patients who needed treatment forced healthcare staff to take on new roles, or work much more than usual, which caused negative feelings:
- Longer working hours affected the work-life balance of healthcare staff, which led to an increase in chronic fatigue and burnout rates.
- Many workers had to isolate themselves from friends and family because they were at a higher risk of contracting the virus.
- At times, healthcare workers had to take difficult, morally challenging decisions, which triggered feelings of guilt and doubt.
- Dealing with more patients in critical condition on a daily basis, combined with all the other stress factors, has led to a sharp increase in mental health issues during the pandemic. One study found that one-third of NHS workers are facing high levels of distress and up to 52% of them have experienced systems of anxiety, depression, even PTSD. The most vulnerable group seem to be nurses (76% of registered NHS nurses have reported worsening mental health) and paramedics, EMTs, and first responders.
- Healthcare workers who were experiencing mental health issues before the pandemic reported worsening symptoms.
What can healthcare workers do to cope with the pressure of the COVID-19 crisis?
During trying times, you may experience symptoms such as:
- Tiredness and burnout
- Trouble sleeping
- Lack of appetite
- Feelings of anxiety and nervousness
- Lack of motivation, feeling powerless
- Difficulty focusing
These are all side-effects of stress, and, as much as your job dictates you to care about the wellbeing of others, you shouldn’t neglect them. Helping others starts with helping yourself, so don’t sweep these symptoms under the rug because they can become more serious in the long run.
In normal circumstances, stressful times can be overcome with the support of friends and family, but these are unprecedented times, and social distancing guidelines call for caution.
These strategies can help you manage the pressure and enhance your mental resilience:
- Talk to your co-workers and supervisors. You are not alone in dealing with pressure. Your colleagues may be experiencing the same struggle, and talking openly about how current events have affected your life can help you feel better.
- Ask about mental health resources where you work. The NHS has initiated several initiatives for frontline workers, and you may be able to receive professional support at the workplace.
- Acknowledge that you have an invaluable contribution in a time of crisis. You have helped save many lives, at times with limited resources, and your efforts have not been in vain.
- Talk to a professional counsellor. They can help you understand how you react to pressure, control stress, and develop healthy coping mechanisms. If going to in-person therapy sessions is not possible, you can try online counselling, which has proven to be just as effective.
- Accept the things that do not depend on you and that you have no control over. Dealing with irritable patients and worried families can make you take personal responsibility for things that are out of your control, so it’s important to separate the two.
- Boost your sense of control by creating a daily routine and sticking to it. At work, things can become chaotic, so having at least a simple routine when you get home can help you feel calmer and more in control.
- Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms. Drinking, smoking, gambling, impulse buying and compulsive shopping can release endorphins and make you feel better, but the satisfaction is short-lived and may lead to bigger problems down the line.
- Find healthy ways to relieve stress. Stress is inevitable in the healthcare field, but you can manage it in healthy ways. Whenever you have the time, no matter if it’s just for a few minutes, do the things that you know relax you: have a hot bath, read a book, meditate, watch YouTube videos, hop on a video call with your loved ones, or any other hobby that relaxes you.
- Eat healthy and exercise. A chaotic schedule can make you forget about healthy meals and your pre-pandemic workout routine, but try to stick to them as much as possible. The current situation is stressful for your mind as well as your body, so give it the healthy fuel it needs to stay strong. Include fruits, veggies, and fibres in your diet, and avoid fast-food and pre-cooked meals as much as possible. Even if you may not have time for a full workout routine, do at least stretching exercises (they can help relieve pressure too), or go for a short run.
Last but not least, remember that, even if the current situation looks a bit bleak, things will soon improve. The COVID-19 crisis has mobilised Governments, pharmaceutical companies are making great strides towards creating a vaccine, and you are part of the brave healthcare workers who are helping humanity right now.