Caring for Those Who Care for Us: Mental Health for Healthcare Workers

It's World Mental Health Day! And in addition to spending some time to focus on your own mental health, we'd like to dedicate some time to thanking the healthcare workers who have been there to help us with our struggles and encourage us to be the best we can be. But in light of their generosity, they may be dealing with mental health concerns of their own.

This notable burden on healthcare workers has further increased during the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, leading many healthcare professionals to experience high rates of burnout, depression and anxiety. In light of this, it is especially important to develop and implement mental health care systems to protect individuals working in health care settings today.

Stressors in Health Care

The health care sector can be a fast-paced, emotionally charged and under-resourced environment to work in. Many healthcare workers have chosen a career in this industry due to the high job satisfaction, their desire to care for those in need, and a passion for supporting patients on their journeys to wellness. However, the stress of a healthcare job often reduces opportunities for workers to engage in the self-care activities required to fully support their own wellbeing.

Employees working in healthcare often report a high number of stressors in their day to day lives. From doctors to nurses, interns to administrators, each feels the unique pressures of a high-demand and under-resourced environment. Some of the common stressors they experience include: understaffing, lack of resources, difficult patient conditions, heavy workloads, long shifts and unsociable hours. Due to these persistent issues, many health care workers report high levels of burnout.

Burnout is defined as "long-term stress in the workplace and is characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion, feelings of being trapped, unmotivated, and demoralized in their working role". Burnout directly impacts one's ability to function in a variety of contexts. A recent study by Mental Health America surveyed health care workers regarding their mental health, specifically during the Covid-19 pandemic. This study found that 82% of healthcare workers experienced emotional exhaustion, which was the most common symptom reported. This was followed by work-related dread (63%) and compassion fatigue (52%).

These mental health struggles often lead to physical health struggles as well. For instance, in the same study nearly two thirds of the participants reported trouble with sleep (70%) and physical exhaustion (68%) while over half reported changes in appetite (57%), and other physical symptoms like headache or stomachache (56%). Another study conducted by Mental Health America explored the interpersonal consequences of burnout. When asked to select their top personal/home stressors, 63% reported being too tired when getting home to cook or do chores, and 27% reported the indirect effect of taking their stress out on their families.

Barriers to Care

Though these issues are widely reported, studies show that 39% of healthcare workers do not feel like they have adequate emotional support. One of the challenges to accessing care can come from the notoriously long hours that physicians and healthcare professionals work. Often times, their schedules can make it difficult to schedule regular appointments.

Additionally, despite working in the healthcare industry, many healthcare professionals still experience personal stigma regarding mental health. One common stigma is based on the narrative that healthcare professionals, particularly physicians and nurses, feel pressure to be 'invincible' and hold themselves to unrealistic standards. They are seen as strong caregivers, who others depend and rely on. Because of this, many healthcare professionals find themselves embarrassed to address their mental health struggles for fear of being perceived as weak. This leads to them isolating from friends and family, and ultimately failing to get the care they need.

Indirect Benefits of Mental Health Care

However, taking care of one's mental health is one of the most impactful actions a healthcare professional can take. In addition to improving their own wellbeing, mental health care provides support for healthcare workers to better care for those around them. For instance, healthcare professionals need high levels of focus, quick responses, critical thinking and attuned empathy to provide high-quality, safe care under unique circumstances. Each of these skills are hard to achieve when experiencing poor mental health. However, cultivating good mental health ensures their actions are safe, that the care they provide is of a high standard, and that the patients and their families benefit from an efficient and engaged workforce.

How to Provide Support

It is important to learn the signs of burnout and understand the ways in which you can provide support- whether that be for loved ones, colleagues, or even for yourself. The first step is to be proactive. If you notice a friend or loved one struggling with burnout in a healthcare setting, reach out to them. Show your gratitude, provide a safe space to vent, or try to do an act of kindness for them. Similarly, if you are experiencing burnout, reach out to those you love and trust.

Additionally, within healthcare organizations it is vital that those in positions of power recognize these systemic challenges and provide support at a higher level. Creating programs that address mental health can reduce stigma and normalize experiences for those who otherwise may feel alone in their struggles. Providing up-to-date mental health resources can further create an inclusive environment for healthcare workers to feel supported and cared for.

Healthcare professionals experience a plethora of challenges that can lead to high levels of stress and mental health struggles. Though they often pride themselves on being excellent caregivers, they may often forget to care for themselves. In order to improve mental health in healthcare settings, it is vital to recognize symptoms of burnout and provide proactive support. This can be done by addressing mental health, encouraging safe spaces for open communication, and providing access to mental health resources. In doing so, we can better protect healthcare providers while simultaneously improving the care they provide to their patients.

Resources

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/healthcare/workstress.html
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/bsc/pdfs/MentalHealthInitiativeForHealthWorkers_508.pdf
  3. https://www.highspeedtraining.co.uk/hub/stress-in-healthcare-workers/
  4. https://temertymedicine.utoronto.ca/news/reducing-barriers-mental-health-care-healthcare-professionals
  5. https://www.mhanational.org/blog/10-ways-support-healthcare-worker-your-life-0
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