Just when I think the pandemic is almost over, things get worse again. Some days I just feel like giving up. Working long hours under incredibly stressful situations, worrying about my kids and my parents, wondering if I’m going to get COVID myself, and worst of all, seeing people I know and care about suffer and even die. I can’t sleep, I’m either exhausted or hyper all the time, and I keep going from one crisis to the next. Will it ever end?
Does that sound familiar? It does if you’re a frontline caregiver or you’re close to one. We’re nearing two years into the pandemic with no definitive end in sight.
To say that the immediate and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are creating significant challenges for the healthcare industry would be an understatement. Staffing shortages, overly stressful working conditions, and the difficulties of juggling higher-than-normal professional and personal/family responsibilities are taking a tremendous toll on healthcare staff and their leadership teams.
According to Healthcare Finance, in a recent online screening test of 1,119 healthcare workers conducted by Mental Health America (MHA), the majority of respondents reported experiencing feelings of stress and being stretched too thin (93%), anxiety (86%), frustration (76%), exhaustion and burnout (76%) and being overwhelmed (75%).
Is it any wonder then why there’s growing concern about the prevalence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among healthcare professionals? What’s worse is that many of the people who’re experiencing symptoms of PTSD don’t even realize that their symptoms are legitimate reactions to the prolonged stressful conditions they’re living and working under. If they don’t understand what they’re experiencing and why, they’re much less likely to seek the help they need.
Further, it’s not just frontline healthcare staff that are being negatively impacted. The organizational implications of the pandemic are equally troubling in terms of patient and resident health and quality of life outcomes, occupancy and utilization, budget implications of additional staffing requirements, increased safety protocols, and more.
What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
PTSD is a psychological condition that can occur in people who’ve experienced or witnessed a traumatic event or been threatened with death or serious injury. While we most often hear the term used to describe the emotional challenges faced by military personnel during or after combat, other traumatic events, such as a natural disaster, a severe accident, or a violent crime can also cause PTSD (American Psychiatric Association).
Since mid-September, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has documented more than 40.5 million cases of COVID-19 and approximately 650,000 deaths caused by or related to the virus in the US alone. The cumulative impact of illness, death, grief, financial crises, loss of employment, juggling work and digital learning, and caring for sick family members creates a breeding ground for PTSD among healthcare staff (Healthcare Finance).
Imagine watching patients die alone because they’re in quarantine, or wondering if in the process of trying to help patients ill with COVID they contract the virus themselves, and worse, worrying about whether they will then unknowingly expose their family and/or loved ones to it as well.
With each new variant of COVID-19, new spikes of the infection in seemingly random hot spots around the country, and the growing number of breakthrough infections among those fully vaccinated, healthcare staff are continually re-traumatized and therefore much more likely to develop PTSD, with no expectation of an end to the pandemic any time soon.
Symptoms of PTSD
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), recognizes four categories of PTSD symptoms: (1) re-experiencing symptoms (flashbacks, reliving the trauma); (2) avoidance symptoms (avoiding places, people, and/or situations that are reminders of the traumatic event); (3) arousal and reactivity symptoms (being easily startled, feeling stressed or on edge); and (4) cognition and mood symptoms (memory issues, negative thoughts, distorted perceptions and emotions).
How can healthcare employers help?
For the sake of the mental and physical well-being of their staff, the health care outcomes and quality of life for the patients/residents they serve, and for their organization’s reputation and financial bottom line, it’s imperative that healthcare employers constantly assess and reassess the impact COVID-19 is having on their staff, both now and for the foreseeable future.
Several strategies are being developed by and for healthcare organizations to provide support to their staff. In addition to employer-provided support, it’s also imperative that employers encourage and provide easily accessible resources for staff to engage in self-care and peer support practices.
There is no one-size-fits all approach for employers or for individuals to address the impacts of COVID-related PTSD. However, the Veteran Administration’s National Center for PTSD has identified five key principles for healthcare organizations to follow when providing support to their employees:
- Promote a sense of safety: educate staff about virus transmission and protection measures, availability of personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Promote a sense of self- and community-efficacy: encourage staff to be proactive in learning more about the virus, vaccines, and related information by directing them to trusted sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website so they can better protect themselves and their loved ones
- Promote a sense of connectedness: help reduce the impacts of social isolation by using technology to facilitate continued connection among staff
- Promote a sense of calming: provide resources that promote relaxation strategies, such as apps, webinars, or short virtual meditation or yoga sessions
- Promote a sense of hope: share survival stories, particularly those of staff and family members within your own organization; update staff on new treatment protocols, including promising medications and vaccines; and good news stories such as those found at the COVID-19 page at the Good News Network or Just Give Me Positive News.
Of the many resources available to employers to support their staff that were reviewed for this article, here are a few great ones:
- COVID-19 Exposure Scale (self-assessment tool) (Veteran Administration National Center for PTSD)
- Managing mental health during COVID-19 (American Medical Association)
- Mental Health Help for Nurses (American Nurses Association)
Sydney Thomas is Principal and Chief Vision Officer of Retirement Divas, where she’s fulfilling her passion to empower women to reimagine and then prepare for their best retirement lives by focusing on healthy and financially sustainable lifestyle choices rather than meeting unrealistic expectations of accumulated wealth. Prior to forming Retirement Divas, Sydney was Director of Operations for a non-profit association in the senior living field, and previously a market research professional for both small consulting firms and two Fortune 500 companies. She is an author and a certified Professional Life Coach.