Australia’s healthcare workers are playing a vital role in slowing and reducing the growth of coronavirus. But many of them are reporting increased levels of stress and anxiety. Here’s what you can do to help.
Research shows they’re not only under enormous strain as frontline workers, but the majority of them are also concerned about contracting the virus themselves and passing it on to others.
“Everyone is trying to protect the vulnerable, but healthcare workers feel that sense of responsibility at a significantly higher level because they’re so exposed,” says Maithri Goonetilleke, a medical doctor and Associate Professor in Global Health at Monash University.
“As a result, they’re less likely to engage with vulnerable family members and friends, even as restrictions start to ease, which means they’re likely to have less support around them.”
Doing what we can as friends, family and even patients to support the mental health and wellbeing of our healthcare workers is incredibly important right now.
What you can do?
- Be considerate
Goonetilleke says “doing the right thing” as a member of the public during the coronavirus pandemic has a big impact for healthcare workers.
“As well as following all the public health advice designed to help stop the spread of coronavirus, if you do have symptoms, it’s important that you follow the recommended procedures around getting tested. Arriving at a GP clinic unannounced will result in high levels of stress for staff.”
- Appreciate the stress they’re under
“Because Australia’s coronavirus numbers are low in comparison to the rest of the world, it may create this sense that the majority of healthcare workers aren’t experiencing its impacts. Then a community perception that all healthcare workers aren’t feeling [those impacts] can develop,” says Goonetilleke. “Not only is that not the case, unfortunately it can contribute to silencing the workers who are stressed and prevent them from seeking help.”
Goonetilleke says the reality is that health professionals from all sectors are affected. “The way every healthcare worker is practising medicine is likely to have been impacted by coronavirus, whether they’re on the frontline, incorporating social distancing or having patients wait outside a surgery.”
As well, some healthcare workers have experienced a significant loss of income as consults have dwindled, and job and financial insecurity are risk factors for feelings of worry, unease and anxiety.
“Over time, those impacts can cause cumulative stress. Being aware of the stress and strain that healthcare workers are under can help foster an environment that encourages them to feel validated in asking for help if they need it.”
- Stay connected
If you’re a friend or family member of a healthcare worker, it’s crucial to stay in touch. “Being aware that we, as healthcare workers, are distancing ourselves from our loved ones more significantly than others may be, and taking steps to affirm social bonds to make up for that, is so helpful right now,” says Goonetilleke.
So, if you can’t physically see them, make the effort to regularly call, text and video-call friends and family who are working in the healthcare space. “Weeks ago, a friend asked how she could support me throughout the coronavirus pandemic and I told her to keep making me laugh. So, every day she sends me a funny meme – she’s made a commitment to do that, and it’s making a real difference. The simple things we used to take for granted have incredible power at times like this.”
- Encourage them to seek support.
Research tells us there’s stigma around experiencing mental health conditions as a healthcare worker, something which can act as a barrier to seeking help.
“Many healthcare workers feel like they’ve failed if they’re not coping and that they should somehow be more stoic and resilient than the general population, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” Goonetilleke says.
“We need to work to de-stigmatise both feeling not okay and the reaching-out-for-help process for healthcare workers. As their friends and family members, supporting and encouraging them to seek support when they need it is really important.”