It’s evident that the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown enormous hardships and obstacles into our everyday lives. As a result of this, the decline in mental wellbeing has been profound in many settings. Whereas certain industries have suffered through layoffs and lack of employment, the healthcare field has endured the opposite: increased demand for workers, longer hours, and sacrificing their personal lives in order to help those who are in need. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that healthcare workers, who bear witness to the atrocities of this virus every day, are in dire need of resources to cope with the new strains on their daily life.
As we have seen a resurgence in COVID cases, we must take into consideration how long our doctors and nurses have been overworked. What can your hospitals and healthcare facilities be doing to address the needs of staff members during these tough times? We explore how crucial it is to invest in the mental wellbeing of healthcare employees now more than ever.
The need has always been there
Historically, healthcare workers have always been at a higher risk for suicide and depression. According to a study by Frédéric Dutheil and colleagues, physicians and nurses are 2-3 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population, with female physicians especially at risk. This is only expected to rise during the strenuous conditions brought on by COVID.
Medical University of South Carolina psychiatrist Constance Guille wrote in an editorial that accompanied a JAMA Psychiatry article, “[these findings are] “particularly concerning” [because the pandemic exacerbated] “two well-known risk factors for suicide among health care workers: work-related stressors and mental health problems.” It is now well documented that the need for support systems for physicians and nurses should’ve been implemented long before the pandemic. As frontline workers provide care and treatment with no clear end in sight, now more than ever there is a need for facilities to address the mental health needs of their staff.
During the COVID pandemic
Wesley Boyd, staff psychiatrist at the Cambridge Health Alliance says, “Historically, in medical training, having a patient die is seen as a failure.” If you factor in a deadly pandemic of a new virus, assessing patients confronted with a condition they don’t necessarily know how to treat, and witnessing multiple deaths on a single shift, it’s a mental health crisis for the frontline workers.
We interviewed Washington-based Mental health professional Greg White who notes, “who’s taking care of the people, who are taking care of the people?” Beyond the struggles seen in hospitals and facilities, there is no smooth transition to their life outside of work. As healthcare workers return home, whether it be to their families or friends, they are overworked, overwhelmed, and are experiencing hopelessness. In some cases, they are seen as a health risk due to their exposure, which can create disconnection among their circles. This is all a recipe for a mental health crisis, and inevitably such factors contribute to depression and suicide risk.
Beyond the unimaginable implications a lack of mental health resources may have on frontline workers, the risks cannot be ignored. Patient safety errors and lawsuits may arise due to staff members working overtime and under high stress situations. Healthcare worker fatigue has always been widely noted, however, it must be addressed and evaluated.
What Can Hospitals and Healthcare Facilities Do to Mitigate Risk
How can we support facilities and ensure their staff is setting up protocols to mitigate suicide risk and mental health? Each facility is subjective, but there are many ways to begin implementing a strategy for the wellbeing of staff members.
Equip Workers with Knowledge
First and foremost, there are clear warning signs all staff members should be aware of. Investing in education or suicide prevention training is one way to start the conversation and ensure staff members are looking out for each other. In order for an organization to thrive, leadership must provide the support and a safe environment for workers to check in. Enlisting a mental health professional to come in for a seminar and providing digital resources for training are great starting points. Opening the door to destigmatize mental health issues allows those who may be suffering to empathize with one another and seek help.
Digitalize and Provide Resources for Check-ins
Beyond educating staff-members, and in an effort to lessen the load on staff, organizations should also create systems where workers can anonymously report someone who may be at risk for suicide, or anonymously come forward and ask for help. Greg White, a licensed professional counselor and suicide prevention specialist notes that “it is crucial for someone to be able to talk about what they’re experiencing… to realize they’re not alone. One of the single most critical factors for a person who could feel suicidal is to reach out.”
The rise of Telehealth services can greatly mitigate the risk of mental illness among healthcare workers. Beyond speaking with an outsourced doctor or therapist anonymously, there are many apps that provide therapy and safety plans for people. Compile a list of resources that workers can turn to if they feel like they need support.
Enact Programs Devoted to Staff Mental Health
If there is a high volume of staff and patients at your institution, you may want to consider a program completely dedicated to the mental wellbeing of staff members. Johns Hopkins Medicine created a confidential support program called Resilience in Stressful Events (RISE). During the past year, RISE team members provide in-person psychotherapy and support. They check in with workers on COVID floors, and have provided a great deal of emotional support for those frontline workers.
Mental health professional Greg White reflected: “when building something good… if you don’t lay that foundation, and take time to get everything right, you’re not going to succeed. Really make sure that individual organizations are laying a solid foundation for taking care of their own.” This is truer than ever given the circumstances of the ongoing global pandemic. In order to mitigate suicide and mental health risks, it’s imperative for facilities to come together and lay down a protocol that workers can turn to. There will always be contributing factors that affect the people who take care of us the most: our nurses and doctors. It is time to invest into their wellbeing once and for all.