Caring for Frontline Healthcare Workers Amid COVID-19

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Photo credit: Depositphotos

By Mark Debus, Behavioral Health Team Lead, Sedgwick

Fear. Anxiety. Anger.

These are among the emotions that can surface among healthcare workers faced with the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace.  Beyond the latest case numbers and statistics, COVID-19 is real.  Everyone knows someone who has had the coronavirus or been impacted in some way.  And yet, healthcare workers are those who have remained on the front lines since the beginning and can be at greatest risk for the emotional toll that daily risk of exposure to the virus can create.  Recognizing this heightened potential for distress makes this an ideal time for healthcare organizations to evaluate their best practices and available resources to support these talented individuals.

Transparent communications remain at the top of the list for employer best practices in dealing with the effects of COVID-19.  Healthcare employers should continue to reiterate the steps and measures they are taking to ensure a safe workplace.  Chances are these added measures have been in place for a number of months, but it is important that employers continue to highlight these safety precautions as a way to reassure workers.  This includes continual cleaning and disinfecting of floors, equipment, and surfaces and well as enforcing precautionary measures such as social distancing, handwashing and wearing masks.

Even with healthcare employers taking a number of proactive steps against the coronavirus, some employees may still feel unsafe, culminating in fear and possible anger.  This situation can engender distrust between employer and employees or between employees and the public.  Employers are encouraged to recognize these issues and address employees’ common concerns. Keep employees informed of the risk and the number of cases that are occurring.  Maintain an open channel of communication and make sure employees feel welcome to discuss concerns and ways to alleviate the added stress.  

Also, recognize the sense of loss or increased isolation that some employees may feel due to new safeguards. While face masks and plastic barriers serve to distance people physically, the loss of social interaction, former camaraderie, and small talk exact an emotional toll. The effects of these losses may present themselves while on the job.   

Many healthcare organizations offer employee assistance programs.  A key component of many of these programs is access to mental or behavioral health services.  Such services are confidential and can offer employees access to much needed professional counseling assistance.  Additionally, many health insurance plans offer employees access to mental health resources at affordable rates or copayments.  Sometimes, employees simply are unaware or forget about having access to these services. Now is the time to reiterate service availability and encourage their use.  This can be done using posters, newsletters, departmental discussions, intranet, or employee portals. The goal is access and usage.

Flexibility is extremely important amid today’s challenges.  Healthcare employers are encouraged to provide employees with information about the vaccine and allow employees time needed to get the injections.  Depending on jurisdiction, the vaccinations may be readily available onsite or, in some cases, up to a few hours away.  Employers should recognize that employees often have only a short window of time to obtain the vaccine and should be prepared to accommodate those needs. In some cases, following injection, employees may experience mild side effects such as sore arm or body aches.  While these are often short in duration, they can be extremely distracting for healthcare workers caring for others.  Make allowances for such situations where possible.  

Also, employers should outline expectations surrounding the vaccine.  Even after receiving a vaccine dosage, transmission of the virus is still possible.  It may be necessary to continue to observe the existing precautionary measures in place until such restrictions are lifted.

Recently, some healthcare workers have been experiencing increased stress and some burnout from the added responsibility of administering vaccines to the public. Due to inconsistent availability and access, and the short turnaround necessary for preparing and delivering the vaccine doses, many healthcare workers have to work long hours on short notice. This causes disruption to their own schedules and impacts their home life as well.

While remarkable strides have been made in combatting COVID-19, there is still much to be learned.  The skills and compassion of healthcare workers will continue to be on full display in the months ahead.  Now is the time to take care of those who take such good care of us.

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