By Anja van den Berg
Doctors, nurses, carers and paramedics around the world are facing an unprecedented workload in overstretched health facilities, and with no end in sight. The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is claiming its stake. The medical fraternity is working in stressful and frightening work environments as information about the nature of the novel coronavirus is still limited. Moreover, in most settings, medical people are under-protected, overworked and vulnerable to infection.
Healthcare workers are vulnerable to immediate and long-term mental health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. A survey of over 3 000 respondents in South Africa conducted by EMGuidance, a clinical reference platform for medical professionals, found that over 70% reported feeling anxious, overwhelmed, frustrated or angry.
Current trauma research recognises not only that these are expected responses to an extraordinary stressor, but also that specific forms of support can mitigate long-term adverse health outcomes.
There is substantial evidence that psychologically savvy supervisors play a critical role in supporting the mental health of team members.
International research indicates that trauma-exposed frontline staff are likely to benefit from being sensitised to the realities of the work they will be asked to do and the associated psychological challenges. This requires that leaders be upfront about what the likely occupational exposures might be. Supervisors should neither over- or under-state the traumatic nature of a role.
Preparatory briefings should include discussion of:
- the moral and ethical challenges of the current situation;
- likely workplace pressures and traumatic exposures;
- the challenges of wearing PPE for extended periods;
- fears of becoming infected and by implication infecting others; and
- the support options that will be made available to mitigate the potential distress that individuals may experience.
Teams operating in even the most arduous of environments are more likely to function well and avoid the onset of severe mental health difficulties if their supervisors create the right team ethos.
This ethos should not be about “positive attitudes” or heroics. A sober assessment of challenges, the knowledge that team leaders are advocates for the working conditions of their teams, including safety issues such as PPE, testing, adequate sleep and two-way communication, create protective and productive environments.
Managers will benefit from knowing which factors make their staff more vulnerable to mental health complications of trauma. People with pre-existing mental health conditions and chronic illnesses and those who have suffered previous severe or cumulative trauma, are some examples of higher-risk groups.
Managers who are worth their salt will ensure safe conditions, adjust workplace demands, harness peer and community support, and allow their people to express their feelings.
United Nations: https://www.un.org/africarenewal/web-features/coronavirus/health-workers-are-frontline-soldiers-against-covid-19-let%E2%80%99s-protect-them
Mail & Guardian: https://mg.co.za/coronavirus-essentials/2020-05-28-nurses-work-and-care-in-fear-of-covid/