The Health of Healthcare Workers
How can we help healthcare workers navigate burnout and trauma fatigue?
Posted May 10, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
Depending on which part of the world you’re in, whether you’ve had a vaccine, or are at high risk of a severe health outcome from COVID-19, your experience of pandemic life right now may differ greatly from others. One thing we all have in common, though, is our exposure to a global trauma that is still ongoing.
As many of us begin to try to regain a sense of normalcy, my heart goes out to those who have become ill, those that have lost someone, and those who are left with immense battle scars from fighting COVID-19 on a daily basis trying to save lives. Much has been said in the media about the heroic efforts of our healthcare workers. Even more than applause or making noises of appreciation for their war zone-like work, we need to remember that PPE is not a superhero costume. There are real people under those masks that need extra care and support right now.
In a recent opinion piece written by Dr. Barbara Ductman in the Detroit Free Press, she commented, “Our nurses are tired of holding so many patients’ hands as they die, knowing the hand the patient really wants to hold is yours,” highlighting some of the intensely traumatizing experiences that healthcare professionals are currently enduring. An article in the Washington Post highlighted a survey in which 3 in 10 healthcare workers stated they are considering leaving their job. Rates of burnout and trauma fatigue are extremely high in this cohort, with many suffering from depression, anxiety, and PTSD symptoms.
Many healthcare professionals were at risk of burnout and suicide before the pandemic and those working within the American healthcare system were struggling with an already fragmented system. We’ve heard heartbreaking stories from ICUs around the globe along with the sad tragedy of New York ER physician Dr. Lorna Breen’s suicide. Her family has started an inspiring foundation to support the well-being of healthcare professionals and is an excellent resource.
How can we show the same care and support to healthcare workers that they have shown to us? For a start, the profit-driven paradigm of the American healthcare industry likely needs to change. Also, there likely needs to be much more focus on mental health care supports and suicide prevention for workers in healthcare facilities. If there is anything COVID-19 has taught us, it’s the importance of safety and prevention measures, and how key mental health is to overall well-being. We have also learned that when tackling a global threat, we can make much more progress when we come together in the fields of science and medicine.
In my many years of work helping patients process and overcome trauma, healing involves being able to talk about the traumatic event in psychotherapy or group therapy and focusing on life situations and events that are within a patient’s control. Also, the saying “time heals all wounds” does hold merit. Unfortunately, with our current pandemic, the traumatic event is ongoing and filled with constantly changing variables outside of our control with no definitive endpoint in sight. For healthcare workers on the front lines, there is no time to pause and process what they’re experiencing as they face one trauma after another in often under-equipped and frequently changing workplace infrastructure.
My hope is that as a result of the immense challenges confronting healthcare workers and the industry as a whole, we will create more extensive, more easily accessible mental health supports, further raise awareness of the crucial importance of mental health, and overcome the stigmas and discomfort around talking about suicide and mental health issues. Taking the best care of our outstanding healthcare workers will undoubtedly result in an increased quality of mind/body/soul care for patients and a better, healthier world for us all.
I recently created an online course in the hopes of providing practical mental health tools, tips, and support specifically for healthcare professionals.
Suggested Reading & Resources
CDC. (2020). “Healthcare Personnel and First Responders: How to Cope with Stress and Build Resilience During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
Dr. Barbara Ducatman. (April 14, 2021). “Doctor at Beaumont Royal Oak: I wish I could show you our COVID-19 units.” Opinion, Detroit Free Press.
Dr. Lorna Breen Hero’s Foundation.
Dr. Geri Puleo (2014), “Burnout and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder”. TedX.
James F. Zender, PhD (2020). Recovering from Your Car Accident: The Complete Guide to Reclaiming Your Life. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
James F. Zender, PhD. (2021). The Trauma Toolkit for Healthcare Professionals.