Mental health tips for frontline healthcare workers

Working on the front lines can take its toll — especially as the pandemic wears on — and health care workers are all too familiar with the fallout.

A recent survey from Mental Health America (MHA) revealed that 93% of health care workers reported feeling stress caused by the pandemic, with 86% citing extreme anxiety and more than three-quarters experiencing exhaustion and burnout — mental health conditions that can severely impair functioning and relationships.

Although most of us haven't been traveling much recently, we're probably familiar with flight attendants reminding us that in case of an emergency to help ourselves first, before trying to assist others.

Such is the case with health care workers. They anticipate continuing workplace challenges as Colorado residents continue to await widespread vaccination.

We spoke with Liliana Tenney, director, Health Links, Colorado School of Public Health, for some insights into how healthcare workers can avoid or cope with burnout and its accompanying mental health symptoms.

If you're a provider seeking mental health support

Workers can educate themselves to identify resources to help them avoid or cope with burnout and its accompanying mental health issues.

1.   Know your rights

When you're in charge of other people's health, you may be reluctant to acknowledge your own concerns. The good news is that numerous professional organizations agree that adequate mental health help allows clinicians to do their best work.

If you worry that you might face discrimination at your workplace due to your mental health issues, you can reach out to your human resources department to ensure they are documenting the situation and your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

2.   Maintain your circle of support and mental health resources

Just having a safe place to be yourself can make all the difference. According to Tenney, it's important to picture the "well-being wheel" — which includes the aspects of our life to maintain, including our physical, social, emotional and spiritual well-being.

During this time of social distancing, it can take more effort to retain ties, but scheduling a video call or an outdoor, masked walk with a friend are ways to stay connected. It's vital to build in time with family, friends and colleagues who can provide a listening ear and space for you to just be yourself.

3.   Practice healthy habits

Making time for family, friends and colleagues; getting adequate sleep; eating well; and finding time to spend in nature — these are among the keys to staying mentally and physically fit.

"Sleep is number one in times of stress," says Tenney. "Practice good sleep hygiene with a focus on a routine that prioritizes rest."

Some Colorado health care workers are finding similar mental health support from time spent in the great outdoors. Quiet time and meditation can also have a profound positive effect for re-centering your thoughts.

4.   Be patient with yourself — and those around you

Sometimes when you're overwhelmed, it can help to focus on why you wanted to work in health care in the first place and how you're contributing to your community. But it's good to remember that you don't always have to play the hero — you are human, and you have your own needs.

Similarly, your colleagues are likely trying to cope with stress and possible mental health challenges of their own. If you spot something worrisome during a casual mental health check-in, you can help your teammate seek assistance. 

If you're a human resources leader looking to help

Your organization likely has services and processes to help workers in need of mental health support, but it's important to make sure your staff is aware of them. Here's what you can do:

1.   Provide a safe space and mental health support for your team

More than eight in 10 emergency physicians feel more stress since the onset of COVID-19, with nearly three in four experiencing heightened feelings of burnout. However, nearly half said they didn't feel comfortable seeking mental health help.

But healthcare employers can help by making their physical and mental well-being a priority. Tenney suggests holding a mental health-themed meeting where people can share and learn about what is available to them.

She also recommends instituting a policy that includes mental health days. "More organizations are allowing and even encouraging employees to use sick paid time for self-care."

2.   Be alert for signs of burnout

Physicians who experience burnout may have mental health symptoms, including fatigue, irritability and depression.

They might detach from friends and colleagues and might begin to show attendance or performance issues. Often colleagues are the first to spot these signs.

To encourage team members to report mental health symptoms, you can include as part of your protocols regular mental health check-ins or questionnaires for them to relay potential issues and receive early intervention.

3.   Provide suggestions for self-care

If possible, give your health care team access to tools like a meditation app that can help with guided imagery, or virtual gym classes, from restorative yoga to exhilarating cardio.

You also can provide suggestions for healthy activities besides exercise, such as expressing their feelings creatively through art, poetry or journaling.

4.   Promote available mental health resources

If your benefits plan includes access to mental health and wellness benefits, send out frequent communications reminding employees to seek assistance as needed.

Other resources include free services from the CU School of Medicine's Department of Psychiatry, as well as community support lines and groups. The Colorado Crisis Services hotline also offers text and walk-in options.

Many organizations also find their team may appreciate organized sessions, such as a video call or online chat, where providers have a safe space to vent, commiserate, and seek and offer a shoulder to lean on.

Check into the channels that your team might prefer, and organize peer groups or sessions led by mental health professionals. 

5.   Recognize staff for the important work they are doing

It's easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day when providers are hurrying from one crisis to another and forget the difference they are making in people's lives.

Make a point to thank your team regularly and share letters of appreciation or uplifting news from patients and their families. Get leadership involved by having senior managers check in frequently with teams on how they are feeling and what they need for support.

Need tips for providing mental health support?

You can visit Pinnacol's COVID-19 resource center and download our "Psychological safety for employees" infographic as an additional resource.

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