The coronavirus pandemic has affected healthcare delivery at almost all levels. Although most of the changes are necessary, the new environment poses a threat to the welfare of healthcare professionals. It will have an impact not just on their physical health, but also their mental wellbeing. Heightened anxiety during a pandemic is completely normal, and even more so for healthcare workers as they have to deal with the uncertainty that is brought on by unprecedented situations. Nurses, in particular, are a high-risk group for mental illness, owing to the nature of their jobs, and the recent turn of events adds more pressure on the vulnerable group. Administrators, organizations, and educators must address it in some way.
Whether it is the constant physical stress they have to endure or the difficulty they face when they have to inform patients about their positive test results, nurses go through a lot on a daily basis. Although they have the professional training and skill needed to deal with such situations, they are not immune to the distress of their patients. A study on the mental impact of the SARS outbreak on healthcare professionals found that close to 50 percent of the participants experienced some form of psychological distress. The current epidemic is even more acute in the severity of its psychological toll. It is only logical that the state offers free access to mental health services to healthcare professionals to tidy them through this tough time.
Organizational and systemic support is a must
Let us not forget that mental health is intrinsically linked to physical health, and vice versa. Hospital administrators can also ensure that the nursing staff takes sufficient breaks to hydrate, eat, and get enough rest through their grueling shifts. They can also make it a point to expedite debriefings and advocate for hospital staff regarding the appropriate safety measures and protective equipment. It does not matter if the nurses are highly skilled if they do not have the relevant equipment, support, and conditions in place to let them do their job to the full extent of their training and abilities.
Our healthcare managers and leaders are not completely immune to stress either. Buddy systems can help allay loneliness and psychological pressure. Formal and informal networks such as these allow colleagues to support and rely on each other, and more importantly, to watch out for the wellbeing of their colleagues. A lot of nurses are also worried they will contract the virus and end up infecting their loved ones. Consequently, a lot of them have become very isolated. Family members can help them by providing practical assistance and support wherever possible.
It is a universally accepted adage of the nursing profession and culture that the patient always comes first. It is not a healthy outlook as you cannot take care of someone else if you do not take care of yourself first. It is the job of educators to eradicate this damaging rhetoric for future generations. If this pandemic has shown us anything, it is that the health of nurses and caregivers has never been more important.
Although the public’s appreciation for nurses is heartening to see, this support should be a catalyst for real action. Governmental policies must ensure that nurses are given representation at all levels of decision making and have a say in influencing systemic decisions and matters of public health policy. There are significant consequences to underinvestment and nurses are always at the receiving end of it. We need to support their voice to identify the support systems and resources they need to do their jobs. Only then will we be able to draft policy that translates to practical action that is safe and sensible for nursing staff and patients.
BY: Dr. Shankar Narang, COO, Paras Healthcare