As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, hospital workers around the world are responsible for keeping national healthcare systems afloat amid the most serious challenge to public health in many lifetimes. With heroic effort, in most areas of the U.S., healthcare professionals have succeeded in preventing the worst-case scenario of the pandemic from occurring so far.
Nonetheless, because of their central role in the pandemic response, healthcare workers have been negatively affected by the pandemic in profound ways. Between endless overwork and severe emotional trauma, healthcare workers face a harder struggle today than perhaps ever before in their profession. Here's what you should know about the pandemic, healthcare workers, and how we can support them.
Heavier workloads and expedited training aren't the whole story
Doctors, nurses, medical technicians, orderlies, hospital sanitation specialists, clinical coordinators, paramedics, and a galaxy of other healthcare workers are in greater demand than ever before as a result of the pandemic. Workers are required to work more hours and additional shifts to keep up with the inflow and care of patients with COVID-19, particularly in hotspots. To address the dire need for more staff, retired healthcare professionals have returned to work, and doctors and nurses on the verge of graduating have seen their timelines expedited so that hospitals in need can make use of their abilities sooner. These efforts have helped to distribute the burden across more workers while also increasing the maximum capacity of hospitals and clinics.
But, outside of hard-hit areas, some healthcare workers have found themselves idle in hospitals that were emptied to prepare for a surge of patients with COVID-19 that has yet to occur. In the least affected regions of the U.S., the cancellation of elective procedures and non-emergency surgeries has temporarily but sharply reduced consumer demand for healthcare services, causing some hospitals to furlough or lay off their employees.
Tenet Healthcare (NYSE:THC) furloughed 3,500 hospital workers due to canceled elective surgeries. Nurses employed at HCA Healthcare (NYSE:HCA) hospitals protested in May after they said they were threatened with layoffs, though the company denied that was the case.
Primary care physicians and some outpatient specialists are also facing massive reductions in their care load, leading to some practices closing and others turning to telehealth services like Teladoc (NYSE:TDOC) to connect with patients from home. This means that some healthcare workers are facing job insecurity for the first time in their careers, even as their skills are in very high demand elsewhere.
Aside from facing new economic uncertainty, many healthcare workers are being viewed as sources of authoritative information during a time when misinformation and conspiracy theories are running rampant. Apart from informing the public about the prevalence and risks of COVID-19, some doctors are also stepping up to proactively correct harmful or incorrect narratives. For many clinicians, this is not a new role to fill, but the scale of the pandemic makes the need for their efforts more urgent than usual.
Healthcare workers are paying a steep physical and mental toll
It's no secret that healthcare workers have been exposed to tremendous risks during the pandemic. Thousands of healthcare workers have been infected with COVID-19 as a result of insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) and poor infection control protocols in hospitals and clinics. At least 600 of these infected workers have died in the U.S. alone, and an untold number face lengthy recoveries. Compared to the average risks faced by healthcare workers before the pandemic, COVID-19 is intensely more dangerous.
While most healthcare professionals don't contract COVID-19, it doesn't mean that they're unaffected by their role in controlling the pandemic. Between the omnipresent risk of COVID-19 infection, the added workload of handling more patients than usual, the stress of triaging patients or rationing resources, and the horror of witnessing their patients suffer from the deadly disease, healthcare workers are more stressed than ever before.
Chronic stress can lead to developing anxiety and depression. One study of 1,257 healthcare workers in China reported that, as a result of their experiences on the front lines of the pandemic, 50.4% of the workers exhibited symptoms of depression, with 44.6% exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and 71.5% exhibiting signs of emotional distress.
However, aside from the chronic emotional issues caused by the daily stresses of working in a hospital or clinic during a pandemic, healthcare workers are also suffering from the effects of acute stress reactions. In fact, many healthcare workers in the worst-hit areas are expected to develop post-traumatic stress disorder after experiencing a toxic cocktail of anxiety regarding infection, fatigue from extreme overwork, and most of all, a torrent of disturbing situations where their patients are dying despite their best efforts.
When paired with the need for healthcare workers to isolate themselves from their families and friends to avoid potentially infecting them, it's clear that the pandemic has deprived these workers from their typical support structures precisely when they are the most vulnerable. At least one doctor in New York City has died by suicide and others could follow due to the hopelessness and stress this crisis has brought.
Supporting people who work in healthcare is a team effort
While it's hard to quantify how many healthcare workers are experiencing anxiety, depression, and PTSD from the pandemic, it's probable that many will need help from psychotherapists and psychiatrists to fully recover. Connecting healthcare workers to professional and community support resources will be an important endeavor as the pandemic continues. It's also reasonable to assume that healthcare workers will need to start taking extended vacations or sabbaticals in between their stints on the front line to preserve their emotional state and maintain their personal lives.
Finally, empathetic support from members of the community is instrumental to help healthcare professionals handle their experiences during the pandemic. If you're not sure how to help, see if your local healthcare system or hospital has a relief fund that is accepting donations.