The toll on the well-being of healthcare workers in the United States is deeply concerning. Particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic, where frontline medical staff put their lives on the line each day as COVID infections continued rising and risk factors increased.
The mental health of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, social workers, therapists, and staff is critical to the current global health care system and the future of medical care in this country. As more doctors and nurses are pushed to the brink and eventually leave their jobs, the shortage of public health care workers — and mental health professionals — increases and threatens the nation’s health and economic security.
The Burden of Mental Illness Amongst Healthcare Workers
The lack of mental health services made available to healthcare workers is astounding, especially when so many other industries and companies have refocused their missions and values around providing an environment where employees feel valued, respected, and supported.
While healthcare workers’ jobs expect them to provide care for patients with mental and physical health problems, the stigma around healthcare workers dealing with their own struggles is prevalent in hospitals and healthcare settings around the United States.
The truth is, many healthcare practitioners are likely to suffer in silence due to the perceived stigma associated with experiencing “stress” and “mental illness,” as well as the fear of getting their medical license withdrawn.
Because of this stigma and the fear associated with it, frontline healthcare workers often sweep their mental health symptoms under the rug and continue with their work. Unfortunately, ignoring mental health problems is never the answer, and the quality of care that these professionals can provide for their patients is also impacted.
The Mental Health Impact COVID-19 Has Had on Stress and Burnout
The impacts of COVID-19 and the pandemic are ongoing, as many healthcare facilities and workforces are dealing with long COVID, staff shortages, and an overarching lack of support.
A recent study reveals that more than one in five healthcare workers experienced anxiety, depression, or PTSD during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Factors that lead to these poor mental health outcomes include:
- High stress at work
- The pressure of the workload
- Staffing shortages
- Lack of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Moral injury from losing so many patients
- Poor organizational support
- Lack of resources
- Lack of support from the community
- Low levels of purpose and hope
- Higher perception of job risk
- Exposure to the media
The psychological distress associated with any of these factors can have an extremely damaging effect on a person’s mental well-being.
Types of Mental Health Disorders in Health Care Workers
The mental health disorders primarily associated with health care workers are depression, anxiety, burnout, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Let’s discuss how these conditions can affect health care professionals and what mental health services should be available for support.
The work conditions in health care facilities put nearly 20 million US health care workers exposed to risk for mental health problems. The most common illness is depression, which was a major concern even before COVID-19. In one survey, over 30% of health care workers met the diagnostic criteria for clinical depression. The emotional toll of the job, paired with inadequate support and staff, means existing workers are stretched thin to provide care for every patient who needs it.
The combination of stress, physical and emotional exhaustion, and lack of emotional support lead to depression in many otherwise healthy people. Surveys during the pandemic found that 69% of physicians reported experiencing depression and 13% had thoughts of suicide. With these staggering numbers, it’s apparent that mental health outcomes from the pandemic are not positive, and ignoring the health crisis happening to the healthcare workforce is harmful and dangerous.
For workers who don’t have the capacity or resources to cope with the trauma associated with treating patients during the pandemic, developing anxiety disorders is unfortunately very common. From a survey about the experiences of health care providers during the COVID-19 pandemic, 86% of workers reported experiencing anxiety, and 75% said they were overwhelmed.
Anxiety in health professionals affects their job performance and health conditions and can reduce their quality of life. It can also impair their mental reasoning, problem-solving, and thinking skills and cause a lack of attention or coordination. If gone undiagnosed or insufficiently untreated, anxiety disorders can lead to disability, reduced ability to work, loss of productivity, and a high risk of suicide. The consequences of a lack of mental health interventions can be deadly.
Nearly 50% of all health care workers experience burnout, and these numbers have skyrocketed in a post-pandemic world. Symptoms of burnout include emotional distress and exhaustion, depersonalization or cynicism, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment.
Pair this with long shifts, complex care protocols, staffing shortages, and highly stressful situations, and it’s really no wonder why many healthcare workers are leaving the field in droves. They don’t feel supported, valued, or as if they can make any difference in their patients’ lives with their level of care. The work environments are straining their physical, emotional, and psychological well-being.
If these adverse mental health outcomes and poor psychological outcomes continue to go unaddressed, the health care burnout crisis will affect the entire nation. This issue has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As more leave the workforce, it will be harder for patients to get care when they need it.
4. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
As a whole, healthcare workers are trained and somewhat equipped to deal with the psychological trauma of witnessing death and illness in their workplace.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the frontline workers that were continuously exposed to physical and psychological stressors often displayed PTSD symptoms, including emotional instability, depression, anger, and irritability, along with physical symptoms including an increased heart rate and blood pressure, nausea, headaches, and physical exhaustion.
The risk of developing PTSD is partially attributed to working in an environment that does not always provide proper protection against the disease, the ongoing suffering of patients and their families, and a lack of confidence in the workplace’s safety protocol measures.
Signs of Mental Illness in Healthcare Workers
Mental health among healthcare workers needs to become a normalized conversation in every workplace setting, regardless of industry. Particularly in healthcare, where risk factors include a deadly coronavirus disease and a lack of psychological support for staff.
Physical signs of mental illness in health care workers include:
- Changes in appetite
- Headaches and stomachaches
- Poor sleep quality
- Low energy or fatigue
Emotional signs of mental illness include:
- Compassion fatigue
- Heightened awareness or fear of being exposed to disease
- Work-related dread
- Low self-esteem
- Reduced ability to concentrate
- Extreme mood swings or changes
- Upsetting thoughts and dreams
When It’s Time to Talk to a Professional
In a post-COVID-19 world, healthcare providers are still dealing with the side effects and symptoms of mental illnesses that they developed during or after the pandemic, or conditions they had prior to COVID-19 that were exacerbated.
Healthcare providers deserve the support of resources that are made available to so many other industries and workforces.
The brave, selfless people who take care of sick communities without proper protection from disease should be offered the same (if not better) mental health science and support from their employers at any point in their careers, without judgment or fear, especially in the wake of COVID-19.
If you begin to feel drained and exhausted before, during, or after a shift, all-consumed by the workload, or experience compassion fatigue, it’s time to reach out for help from a mental health professional.
Fortunately, many mental health conditions are treatable with therapy, psychological interventions, medication, and other measures. Many health workers have demanded their workplaces improve mental health resources and support for their own health and the well-being of their coworkers.
Seek Help & Support with Clear Recovery Center Virtual Mental Health Program
The unprecedented aftermath of COVID-19 is something many industries are navigating, health care being one of the most impacted by this new world. Public health care is in dire need of a shift, to protect its many employees.
Mental health disorders are often accompanied by a sense of hopelessness and loneliness. If you are experiencing occupational burnout, anxiety, or any symptoms of mental illness, we are here to help. At Clear Recovery, we pride ourselves on being providers of outstanding mental health care and treatments that are both effective and long-lasting. Contact us today for more information.