Effect of COVID-19 on mental health of health-care workers

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, working in healthcare was stressful. According to a research on mental distress in healthcare workers as compared with those in other industries, healthcare workers are more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders and the doctors usually suffer higher rates of suicide than the general population.

However,the novel coronavirus outbreak threatens to further exacerbate work-related stress among healthcare workers thus, amplifying their psychological suffering. Studies indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic is associated with distress, anxiety, fear of contagion, depression and insomnia in the general population. Health care professionals are especially distressed.

Although the healthcare profession has always been stressful, however, the ongoing pandemic has further led to the healthcare workers living among increased levels of adversities, thus adversely affecting their mental health.

The mental and physical exhaustion that healthcare workers across the globe are likely to be facing due to higher workload is not unfamiliar to most frontline workers but what is unfamiliar is the nature of what they face at work. The varied aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic that are affecting many healthcare workers in various ways include:

Risk of infection: The most obvious distinction is the direct threat of infection on healthcare workers who attend to the sick.Healthcare workers are confronted daily with the unsettling reality that they themselves are regularly exposed to the potentially lethal culprit and at risk for spreading the virus to their own families and colleagues. Many healthcare workers prefer to stay alone away from their families, further increasing the level of their anxiety.

Sense of helplessness: Another novel feature of the COVID-19 pandemic is the helplessness that healthcare workers often suffer from when they lack access to the beds or equipment they need to provide patients with the best care they can, as well as to the personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect themselves. Losing high volumes of patients due to lack of resources is another stressor for most healthcare workers.

Moral injury: They are often forced to make medical choices that would normally involve patients’ family members because patients’ loved ones are often forbidden from entering hospitals. It has been suggested that these events cause what is referred to as moral injuries and thereby, have lasting harmful effects on their self-esteem, and above all, their mental health.

Lack of social support: While stress is higher than ever for frontline workers, coping mechanisms that involve social support are largely unavailable as a result of policies around COVID-19. Lessons from the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak taught us that, not only did working in jobs that increased the risk of contracting the virus enhance the likelihood of suffering posttraumatic stress symptoms, but the same is true in case of social isolation.

How can we reduce the negative psychological impact?

One of the most useful things we can do right now to address the psychological effect of COVID-19 on our healthcare workforce is to look at what we know from previous experience. Based on data from previous pandemics and observations during COVID-19, the following approaches may help to minimize the overall psychological impact of the novel coronavirus.

Providing practical support: Data from medical staff involved in the response to Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) have shown that healthcare workers believe that specific means of support played a protective role in mental health. These modes of support included developing and implementing infection-control measures, reducing work intensity by offering more medical staff and PPE, and providing practical guidance.

Proactively identifying those who are suffering: Research on those who endured the SARS outbreak suggests that it is important to identify those who are at high risk for enduring psychological distress, monitor them, and provide relevant support if they do not recover psychologically.

Developing evidence-based prevention and treatment tools: Some experts suggest that greater investment in tools for mental health are necessary to help ensure that medical workers recover psychologically from acutely stressful situations. 

While healthcare workers might appear resilient, they are also humans and need the same psychological support that others do in the times of turmoil. It is therefore important to not only look into our current knowledge base but also to collect and analyze data regarding the specific ways this pandemic affects our healthcare workers.

#Created by Akanksha Mahajan

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