Managing Mental Health on the Front Lines of COVID-19

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April 22, 2020 12:13 PM (GMT-04:00)
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Growing Focus on Mental Health

When the COVID-19 virus began to spread across continents in early 2020, it became clear the burden that would fall on the healthcare industry in all US 50 states. It is now evident there is an extreme strain on the mental health of frontline health workers and healthcare executives as they work to improve operations and create safe working environments. The concern for healthcare workers’ mental health stems from challenges they face, including:

  • Loneliness due to the requirement to socially isolate, even from family members
  • Concerns about putting family members at risk
  • Fears of contracting and/or dying from the virus
  • Grief over traumas witnessed while caring for patients
  • Stress over making patient care decisions with too few resources
  • Emotional strain of handling grieving, scared patient families

Taking Steps for Safety

Across the country, healthcare executives are dedicating resources to protecting the physical health of their workers. This is a crucial step, considering that China’s National Health Commission reported more than 33,000 health workers had been infected in early March. In Italy, it is reported that 20% of frontline healthcare workers have been infected, with several deaths. The concern over physical safety is critical, and it is becoming clear that executives must take equal steps to protect the mental and emotional safety of their team members.

To protect industry workers and executives, the American Medical Association has identified three key areas executives can encourage team members to focus on in order to help maintain emotional and mental health. Executives are using these categories to remain focused and support their team during the COVID-19 crisis:

Take care of yourself

The #healthcareheros movement is gaining momentum across the country as the great work of the first responders, frontline workers, executives and hospital staff is acknowledged and appreciated. And while this recognition is well-deserved and can serve as motivation during this difficult time, it is also a heavy load to carry. To manage that load, healthcare leaders are reminding team members to step back occasionally and care for themselves in order to better care for their patients.

Small changes, such as trading time on social media for beginning a new book or podcast, starting an exercise routine or building dedicated time during the day to connect virtually with friends and family can help ease the metal burden.

Some healthcare leaders have shared that implementing a daily devotional with their team, making sure to spend time outdoors, and being intentional with gratitude have been excellent tools in keeping their spirits up.

Take care of your staff

During this challenging time, team members may be experiencing emotional or mental health struggles. To help support staff and frontline workers, many healthcare leaders are implementing recognition programs to allow the successes of the team to inspire others. Because many workers may be facing financial challenges, handling homeschooling their children and managing family stresses on top of their work obligations, leadership recognizes that it is more important than ever to provide avenues of support.

Some options for support currently being utilized include implementing call centers for team members to seek counseling or ask questions, utilizing flexible scheduling where possible, and allowing behavioral health team members to make operational suggestions for positive changes.

In order to manage the complications of caring for patients with intellectual, cognitive and psychosocial disabilities, many executives are allowing clinical providers to partner with behavioral health team members to reduce stress and improve communication.

Take care of your patients

The emotional toll of caring for patients has never been higher for healthcare workers and executives. For most organizations, caring for patients during the COVID-19 crisis is about more than just mental and physical health – it is about providing a sense of security and normalcy for patients facing potential end-of-life scenarios. Providers are reporting that patients are feeling angry and frustrated, which is often compounded by the lack of familial and friend supporting due to social distancing.

Remembering that social distancing does not require emotional distancing allows providers to continue to be an emotional support and healthcare leaders to craft operational plans that take emotional health into account for the patients.

Acknowledging that patients may have serious financial concerns during this time will also help ease emotional pressure. Executives today recognize that, while it is critical for them to continue performing their daily tasks for their team and their community, they must also set the tone for patient care by remaining calm and confident in the face of all the questions that still linger.

Looking Forward

For healthcare leadership, the practices put into place to support their team through the COVID-19 pandemic will be no less important once the immediate threat has passed. It is likely that the industry will see the after-effects of this challenging time reflected in the physical, mental and emotional health of frontline workers for a long time to come.

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