Rosie Geier, PharmD, is a clinical manager at Enclara Pharmacia. Each Enclara hospice client is assigned their own clinical pharmacist manager who helps monitor utilization and provides educational and operational support to help hospices improve quality of care while managing costs.
The pandemic is over! Or is it? I’m confused… And I’m certain that I’m not the only one. I am now fully vaccinated and live in a state where almost all restrictions have been lifted for fully vaccinated individuals. So, I can go crazy, right? Then why does my heart race every time I see someone in the grocery store without a mask? Why do I start to sweat every time I see a large crowd enjoying a baseball game?
If you are feeling anxious about post-pandemic life, know that you are not alone. I did some digging and found that these reactions are completely normal, especially for us healthcare workers. Some of us witnessed patients battling COVID-19, some of us were sick with COVID-19 ourselves, and some of us experienced the loss of a colleague or loved one due to COVID-19. It’s no wonder many of us feel anxiety about returning to our post-pandemic activities.
Despite feeling the mental health strains of the pandemic, healthcare workers tend not to prioritize our own wellbeing. We encourage patients to seek help for their mental health, but we ignore our own. I have assembled some strategies that healthcare workers and their employers can use to reduce COVID-19-related stress.
COVID-19 Pandemic Impact on Healthcare Workers’ Mental Health
There are limited studies on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on healthcare workers. This is because it is still too early to assess the true physical and psychological toll of the pandemic. Future longitudinal studies will provide greater insight as to the true impact of the pandemic on healthcare workers.
Initial studies revealed that one in every four healthcare workers has experienced at least mild anxiety, depression, or sleep disturbance1. During the pandemic, 24% of healthcare workers reported anxiety, 21% reported depression and 37% reported sleep problems. In addition, 37% reported a variety of other manifestations of distress, including:
- Preoccupation with the risks of COVID-19
- Compulsive attention to COVID-19 related news
- Work-related anxiety, guilt, and bereavement
- Avoidance of returning to the healthcare setting
- Intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and irritability2.
The risk of developing mental health issues increased when healthcare workers felt they were unable to take time off of work3. The most common reasons healthcare workers felt they could not take time off work were concern about falling behind, no work coverage, and feeling guilty. Other risk factors for developing mental health issues included exposure to COVID-19 patients, being female, worry about being infected, and worry about a family member being infected1.
Strategies to Improve Mental Health in a Pandemic and Post-Pandemic World
The end of the COVID-19 pandemic is in sight, but uneven vaccination rates and more transmissible variants complicate the process of returning to “normal” life. Government guidance is constantly changing and individuals have differing levels of comfort when it comes to returning to pre-pandemic activities.
To help determine the most effective coping strategies, some studies have looked at the needs of healthcare workers after the SARs or Ebola pandemics. One of the most important strategies was simply providing for clinicians’ basic needs:4
- Access to food and drink
- Adequate rest
- Childcare availability
- Clear guidance from leadership
As guidelines change, it is important for healthcare workers to understand how they impact day-to-day work activities. Healthcare workers also need training on pandemic-related changes to their roles. As more of the public becomes vaccinated, many aspects of healthcare may return to pre-pandemic norms. However, some things will likely never be the same. It is important for healthcare workers to receive proper training on these potentially permanent changes.
Last, and perhaps most important, healthcare workers need to ensure they are accessing mental health services and that they have support from peers, family, or friends4. In a survey of healthcare workers, employee assistance programs for mental health programs were available for 66% of workers3. However, only 12% of workers accessed these programs and 27% of workers did not know their employer offered these programs. This emphasizes the importance of not only offering these programs to employees, but also ensuring healthcare workers know mental health assistance is available to them and know how to access this help.
- Muller AE, Hafstad EV, et al. The mental health impact of the covid-19 pandemic on healthcare workers, and interventions to help them: A rapid systematic review. Psychiatry Research. 293. 2020. Accessed on: 29 June 2021.
- Krystal JH. Responding to the hidden pandemic for healthcare workers: stress. Nature Medicine. May 2020. Accessed: 29 June 2021.
- Bryant-Genevier J, Rao C, et al. Symptoms of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal ideation among state, tribal, local, and territorial public health workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. MMWR. 25 June 2021. Accessed: 29 June 2021.
- Schwartz R, Sinskey JL, et al. Addressing post pandemic clinician mental health. Ann Intern Med. 21 August 2020. Accessed on: 29 June 2021.