Let's address mental health toll of Covid-19 on healthcare workers

Woman looking depressed [Courtesy]

While many continue to be awed by the courage and dedication of healthcare workers going all out to save lives during this pandemic, it is easy to forget that these Covid warriors are also vulnerable to physical and psychological burdens even as they continue to put on a brave face in the face of huge demands placed on them.

The changes brought about by Covid-19 have had important impact on society. Notably, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to highlight the crucial and unique role healthcare workers and systems play in maintaining a semblance of global order and sanity. In a world obsessed with commerce, the pandemic is a timely reminder that no amount of gold or silver can substitute good health and well-being.

Since the start of the pandemic, healthcare workers have toiled in tough conditions as the global community races to counter this catastrophe. Limited medical resources to deal with a novel monster, longer working shifts due to increased demand for healthcare services, and having to cope with cumbersome and uncomfortable personal protective equipment are just a few of the challenges facing health workers.

Psychologically, the pandemic has seen a dogged assault on workers' mental health. Pressure to make critical life or death decisions in the context of a frenzied healthcare system stretched almost to a breaking point; family conflicts due to disruption of work–life balance, and the ever-present cloud of occupational injury associated with exposure to patients with Covid-19 have all contributed to adverse psychological outcomes among healthcare workers. While many have died in the line of duty after contracting the deadly virus, the pandemic has scarred thousands more, leaving behind a trail of workers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders, insomnia, anxiety and depression. 

In the context of health workforce challenges, Covid-19 can be viewed as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it has exposed the soft underbelly of the healthcare system with regards to workers' psychological wellbeing. On the other, it may just be the cathartic condition, which finally leads to mental burnout being recognised for what it is: a symptom of a mismatch between the requirements of the system and the capacity and capabilities of the workforce. 

But all is not lost. Specific psychological interventions that provide support continue to be implemented. Some of these measures are simple and could be implemented without any additional financial investment. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, frontline health workers at the Coast General Teaching and Referral Hospital would have dance and music sessions during breaks to relieve stress and motivate each other. Other interventions could include emergency phone lines to handle requests for psychological support as well as setting up of online platforms that provide mental health advice.

Eventually, the pandemic will hopefully be over. But its effects on the mental health and well-being of healthcare professionals will remain for a long time. Institutions should invest in supporting healthcare workers with resources to sustain their medical work and the means to address the mental health burdens of this global affliction.

The writer is the director of nursing services at Coast General Teaching and Referral Hospital.