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Healthcare Heroes Need Help Too: Mental Health Issues Grow with Pandemic Stresses

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ECRI this year, named healthcare worker mental health as its second of ten patient safety concerns for 2022.

For years, the healthcare community has known that the stresses of the profession can take a toll on those in direct care roles. Healthcare is hard work, physically and emotionally. Challenges such as staffing shortages, patient load, workplace violence, liaising with other caregivers, patients, and families, and even lack of basic bathroom and meal breaks, can contribute to exhaustion, depression, anxiety, self-doubt, frustration, hopelessness, and fear.

Mental health challenges have been called burnout, depression, or perhaps anxiety, but no matter its moniker, worker mental health has been in a perilous state for too long. Add the COVID-19 pandemic to this mix, and the structure under healthcare workers teeters even more perilously.

COVID-19, especially in the pre-vaccination days, brought the very real fear, and actuality, that healthcare workers could die due to work-related illness. If they didn’t die, likely a co-worker did; The World Health Organization (WHO) conservatively estimated that as of 2021, at least 115,500 healthcare workers died due to COVID-19, and the WHO says the number is likely higher. Workers also carried with them the fear that they could unknowingly transmit COVID-19 to a family member.

Many healthcare workers experienced the death of a patient due to COVD-19. In fact, some caregivers experienced the death of several patients, who, due pandemic restrictions, were alone in rooms while nurses held phones to their ears, so distraught loved ones could talk to them. That kind of emotional toll needs to be addressed, especially since research shows that those who don’t process this stress effectively have less resilience.

Additionally, the pandemic called attention to healthcare workers in non-direct or support roles. For example, facilities staff were often short-staffed leaving those who did come to work there for long hours and also exposed to rapidly spreading COVID-19.

And here are some alarming numbers: a survey of 500 healthcare workers published in December of 2021, in the Journal of General Internal Medicinerevealed that, “… a substantial majority of respondents reported experiencing clinically significant psychiatric symptoms, including post-traumatic stress disorder (38%), depression (74%), anxiety (75%), and recent thoughts of suicide or self-harm (15%).” Another study, published in in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2019, estimated that physician burnout alone, in addition to its human toll, costs the country around $4.6 billion annually.

So where does the healthcare community go from here? The good news is that perhaps for the first time, healthcare workers are rejecting the healthcare-hero-stereotype and saying that they’ve felt overlooked and undervalued for far too long. They want to be seen and heard. And while self-care is important, it is not nearly enough to treat their very real mental health struggles.

For our part, ECRI has sounded the alarm on this issue more than once, and even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. In ECRI’s annual publication, the Top 10 Safety Report (for 2022) our team of experts has detailed steps that can be taken to address this urgent issue. It’s available on our homepage and free to download as part of our commitment to patient safety. Further assistance can be procured by contacting ECRI.

Topics: Patient Safety, COVID-19, ECRI, Leadership, Pandemic Leadership, Thought Leadership, Public Health, Nursing shortage, Healthcare worker burnout, Mental Health, Burnout, physician suicide

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