Keeping your healthcare workforce healthy during the global pandemic requires more than safety protocols. Mental health support is vital as team members deal with social isolation, uncertainty and the difficulty of achieving good outcomes with COVID patients.  

“The addition of responsibilities and worries – personally and professionally – has only added to that,” explains Lauren DeCaporale-Ryan, PhD, who holds multiple positions at The University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC), including assistant professor of psychiatry, medicine and surgery. “To try and juggle all that is required, give one’s full energy and effort and live with the fears can feel daunting.” 

Indeed.  

According to a study by Mind Share Partners, even before the COVID-19 outbreak, 60% of employees in all sectors experienced symptoms of a mental health condition, and 61% of them said their output and effectiveness were negatively impacted by it. Another survey sponsored by Mind Share Partners, SAP and Qualtrics in March and April 2020 showed that 41.6% of respondents experienced mental health declines since the pandemic began. The top three symptoms include increased emotional exhaustion, sadness and irritability in day-to-day life. Alarmingly, the number assessing their mental health in the lowest range doubled in that time.  

And one final data point: 34% of employees left their jobs because of mental health reasons. That’s bad news for sectors like healthcare that are already battling burnout and labor shortages.  

Explore strategies for retaining nurses as the pandemic rolls on. 

Susan McDaniel, PhD, ABPP, former president of the American Psychological Association, says “We need to focus, as my colleague Nadine Kaslow said, on ‘flattening the emotional curve’ as well as the biological curve of the pandemic or we likely will have a mental health surge as a consequence.”  

How to Support Healthcare Workers’ Mental Health 

“We want to recognize early the behavioral health problems like anxiety and depression that are occurring with health professionals as a result of COVID,” notes McDaniel, who holds several posts at URMC including academic chief, Division of Collaborative Care and Wellness. “These programs allow us a quick runway to get them the help they need as early as possible, help that is often difficult to receive because of a shortage of behavioral health services in other communities.” 

Here are five steps to take to help support your healthcare workers:  

  1. See staffers as individuals. It can be hard to see employees as individuals. After all, they work in teams and are assigned to schedule slots that must be filled regardless of individual needs. Make a point of acknowledging team members as individuals. Even small nods to individuality and identity can go a long way. 
  1. Have psychologists on call for clinical departments and units. Making these professionals available to the workgroup facilitates early identification of issues and enables in-context intervention from a trusted colleague. Consider making these assignments permanent for some units. 
  1. Upgrade your EAP and launch a mental health employee resource group to provide structured support. McDaniel’s program began virtual check-in for specific departments and peer groups (physician faculty, residents, managers, staff and leaders). These once- or twice-weekly 30-minute sessions are a safe place to share experiences. Participants receive support from psychologists and other behavioral health professionals, who also deliver psychoeducation and monitor employee wellness. Make sure that there is support for these sessions as protected time, so that staff members do not see them as an additional obligation in already overstretched schedules.  
  1. Host a COVID helpline. Early on, URMC created a hotline employees can call for help finding everything from adult and child daycare to mental health support – staffed with volunteer behavioral health personnel trained by a psychologist.   
  1. Support junior staffers. Experienced staff has muscle memory for weathering crisis that junior employees, residents and med students do not. “Create buddy programs…to pair a senior person with a junior person who checks in daily to monitor and promote well-being and caring.” UMRC also increased the monthly support group for residents to a weekly meeting during the pandemic. Again, structure these meetings and check-ins so they do not contribute to already-taxing schedules. 

Healthcare is a stressful and taxing profession. Providing compassionate, quality care during a pandemic makes it even more so. Use this information to add mental health to the other ways you support and engage employees. Enhance how your organization cares for its own. 

For additional COVID-19 support,  visit our Coronavirus Resource Center 

About Margot Carmichael Lester

Margot Carmichael Lester is a North Carolina-based freelance business journalist who has been covering healthcare and staffing for more than 20 years. She also writes about moviemaking for the International Cinematographers Guild, specializing in action cinema. Margot co-authored the award-winning teen writing book Be a Better Writer with her husband, Steve Peha. She earned her BA in journalism from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and is a rabid Tar Heel basketball fan.