How to Foster Better Mental Health in the Healthcare Workforce
The COVID-19 pandemic raised concerns about how we treat mental health in the workplace. And few employees felt the stress of the pandemic more than those on the front lines: practitioners and healthcare workers treating severe COVID-19 cases or exposed to the virus in hospital settings. A study from Mental Health America conducted at the height of the pandemic found that 93% of healthcare workers reported stress, 86% reported anxiety, and 76% said they were feeling exhaustion and burnout.
These are alarming percentages. And even with COVID-19 cases falling in many places, healthcare workers still experience stress and burnout from the past year. Now, more than ever, hospitals and healthcare systems need to prioritize the mental health of their practitioners and staff.
Here's how to support ongoing mental health and wellness for your healthcare workforce.
The pandemic heightened mental health risks for healthcare workers, including exposure to the virus itself and stress and burnout from overwork. "Healthcare workers who contract COVID-19 are at higher risk for negative mental health outcomes, including depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, and burnout," says Patricia Watson, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist at the National Center for PTSD. And healthcare workers who isolated themselves from family to prevent exposure spread have seen an increase in depressive symptoms, too, Watson says.
Developing healthy schedules that foster work-life balance is key to preventing burnout and protecting mental health. If you have workforce shortages that prevent you from giving your practitioners and staff time off, consider investing in a staffing agency to fill gaps. You can also provide temporary workers so that full-time staff can take much-needed time off, allowing you to add a dedicated two or three days off between each worker's shifts.
If your organization doesn't already provide comprehensive mental health benefits, including free access to counseling and mental health screenings, now is the time to add them. "Cover all mental health expenses for workers," says Michael DeMarco, Ph.D., licensed psychotherapist and director at RemoteCounselors.net. Other benefits, such as schedule flexibility and childcare, can also reduce everyday stressors and minimize stress and anxiety before they escalate.
Train your workforce in Stress First Aid, a framework developed for individuals in high-risk occupations. "SFA includes core actions that help to identify and address early signs of stress reactions in an ongoing way — not just after 'critical incidents,'" Watson says. Using this model, workers can identify their reactions and their colleagues' along the stress-reaction continuum. "The goal of SFA is to identify stress reactions along that continuum and to help reduce the likelihood that stress outcomes develop into more severe or long-term problems," Watson continues.
Mental health care and access have come before the public eye, especially for healthcare practitioners and staff. However, legislation in the works could create better access to mental healthcare for healthcare workers. For example, the federal Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act, named for Dr. Lorna Breen after her tragic death during the first months of the pandemic, proposes to provide better mental health education and COVID-specific mental health programs for providers affected by the pandemic. The legislation has been endorsed by the American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Nurses Association.
Healthcare leaders can support local and national legislation to help healthcare workers. See what legislation is happening in your state or community, and where leaders at your organization can lend their voices to drive real change and access to better mental healthcare. "Push government to unequivocally open access to any licensed clinician in the country for in-person or online services," DeMarco says. "Normalize and increase access."
Prioritize mental health and well-being for your clinical practitioners and healthcare staff. Healthcare workers have devoted more than a year during COVID-19 to saving lives and providing care and comfort to patients, and it's taken a toll. Now it's up to you to protect their mental health and overall well-being.