As the country returns to a bit of normalcy, we must not forget that there are those who suffered incredible loss during the Covid-19 pandemic.  In light of Mental Health Month, we would like to focus on the healthcare industry because everyone involved in healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic is at the forefront of a long, challenging battle. During the pandemic, healthcare workers suffered a huge emotional and psychological toll and are at a high risk of stress, burnout, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and similar mental health concerns. When the pandemic is over, it’s imperative that leaders address these concerns and protect workers’ mental health beyond the outbreak. 

In the post COVID-19 world, healthcare facilities and leaders will need to develop new strategies to support healthcare workers and their mental health. One study explores how healthcare workers in Italy are navigating these mental health stressors, following psychological support services guidelines. The authors of the study suggest preventative measures and a psychological intervention plan should be a part of these efforts.

Mitchell Martin’s healthcare division has dealt with healthcare workers for many years and has seen an increase in conversations around the effects of dealing with the pandemic from an emotional standpoint.  Keith McConomy, Mitchell Martin Healthcare’s Client & Talent Development Manager says it best:  “Healthcare workers are often the first line of defense for the most vulnerable members of our society. It’s absolutely crucial that we watch out for their mental health and emotional needs. You cannot care for others, if you yourself are not cared for.”

While the pandemic has shed a light on the importance of mental health for healthcare workers, we need to ensure that it’s not just a passing fad.  Moving forward, we recommend three key approaches for those making decisions in the healthcare world. These will help keep mental health in the spotlight post-pandemic. The key strategies are to reduce stigma, improving the ability to identify mental health concerns, and improving access to mental health programs.

Healthcare workers are often the first line of defense for the most vulnerable members of our society. It’s absolutely crucial that we watch out for their mental health and emotional needs. You cannot care for others, if you yourself are not cared for.”

Keith McConomy

Client & Talent Development Manager, Mitchell Martin Healthcare

Reducing Stigma

Reducing the stigma of mental health concerns is an important first step. Research shows that healthcare providers face this stigma and that it creates barriers in seeking help. This research notes that stigma is a problem of workplace culture, where workers are discouraged from talking about or seeking help for mental health concerns. 

Unfortunately, people with mental health concerns working in healthcare report being perceived as dangerous, unpredictable, and less competent. They are less likely to disclose mental health issues, which then often grow more severe without early intervention. This leads to an over-reliance on self-treatment, low peer support, and an increased risk of suicide. 

Suggested methods of reducing stigma include teaching healthcare providers what to say and what to do around mental health concerns. The fact is that many people do not know. It also involves hearing first-hand testimonies from people with lived experience of mental illness and who have been trained to share their stories, including those of recovery. ‘Myth-busting’ false beliefs or unconscious biases about mental illness is important, along with workshops and training. 

Learning to Spot Mental Health Concerns

To better protect healthcare workers’ mental health, training for healthcare leaders to recognize signs of mental health issues is necessary. As in any other workplace, those in leadership positions need to be aware of common signs of mental illness and be ready to support staff. As in any other workplace, staff may be reluctant to come forward with mental health issues thanks to stigma. It’s up to leaders to be ready to act.

Leaders should know that symptoms of mental illness or disorders can look different at work than in other situations. Even for healthcare leaders who are well aware of the signs of depression, anxiety, and other illnesses, symptoms may be more challenging to uncover in a professional setting. 

It is also important to understand that changes in work habits may have nothing to do with poor performance, but instead point to a mental health problem. If a healthcare worker is notably less motivated or less productive, it is worth digging deeper into why this is happening. The same goes for physical changes such as a downgrade in personal grooming or hygiene. 

Other red flags leaders should be on the lookout for include increased lateness or absenteeism, whether it is for entire shifts at work or for meetings and events. A worker showing signs of increased mood changes, outbursts, or overwhelming emotions could be facing a mental illness. Conversely, if someone is withdrawing and avoiding interaction, it’s worth reaching out to them and offering support, especially through any specialized mental health programming available. 

Access to Mental Health Programming

Access to mental health programming designed to meet the needs of healthcare workers is key. While everyone deserves strong mental health support, the needs of healthcare workers are unique. It is often helpful to have peers involved, as nobody understands healthcare workers’ concerns better than others with experience in the healthcare world.

In New York City, a program called Helping Healers Heal is focused on helping healthcare workers process trauma. They have put together 18 facility-based teams, with more than 1000 trained peer supporters. The program also includes an anonymous hotline, respite rooms, and wellness rounds performed by the peer supporters.

Programming needs can also be tailored to healthcare workers with an audit of where workers need support. Organizations and facilities can identify psychosocial factors, qualitative and quantitative indicators of mental health, and the policies, programs, and practices that exist already. Doing this audit makes it easier to identify what is working well and what may be missing from mental health programming.

It’s obvious that the effects of Covid-19 will be felt far into the future.  We hope that the concern for the mental health of healthcare workers during the pandemic is a trend that will continue post Covid.  Fellow healthcare workers, family, friends, employers, we can all play a part in protecting the mental health of our healthcare heroes.  For more information, read more about Mental Health America’s Tools 2 Thrive program which provides practical tools that everyone can use to improve their mental health and increase their resiliency regardless of their personal situation.

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