Healthcare workers say they need mental health services, but many aren’t getting them

Healthcare workers say they need mental health services, but many aren't getting them

Dive Brief:

  • More than 60% of frontline healthcare workers say the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health, according to a national survey published Tuesday from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Post.
  • About 13% of those surveyed reported accessing mental health services or medications while 18% said they needed such services but didn’t get them. Those who didn’t get help cited being too busy or unable to get time off work, feeling afraid or embarrassed or not being able to afford it.
  • Another recent survey from the American Association of International Healthcare Recruitment found that nearly 80% of registered nurses said the pandemic strained staffing in their unit to “unsafe levels.”

Dive Insight:

The latest polling adds to a pile of research on healthcare workers’ struggles with pandemic-induced burnout. It’s taking a toll on their mental health, especially among such workers who often feel stigmatized when seeking treatment. The stress from COVID-19 has been particular hard on female providers and those in critical care and infectious disease specialties.

The exhaustion of staff as well as some getting sick themselves has led hospitals to hire record levels of temporary nurses at increased rates. They are also taking measures like redeploying office staff to clinical areas and cross-training employees when possible.

The fear of burnout led the Joint Commission to issue a bulletin encouraging providers to offer more mental healthcare access to staff along with fostering more open and transparent communication.

The KFF and Washington Post survey is based on interviews from 1,327 healthcare workers employed by hospitals, doctors’ offices, outpatient clinics, nursing homes and other facilities across the U.S. from February through early March. It includes a comparison survey of 971 adults across the U.S. not working in healthcare settings.

Pandemic-related stress led roughly half of respondents to report problems sleeping, while 31% reported frequent headaches or stomach aches, according to the report. Also, 16% said they’ve increased their drug or alcohol use, and about half say they’ve experienced at least one of those three issues.

Fear of exposure and bringing the virus home to family members has been the hardest part of working through the pandemic for about 21% of the survey’s respondents, while having to wear additional masks and personal protective equipment was cited by 16%.

Fewer said safety protocols and precautionary measures, being overworked with long hours and lack of time off have been the most difficult part.

While more than half of healthcare workers overall said the pandemic harmed their mental health, younger workers have been the hardest hit.

More than 70% of respondents younger than 30 years old said the pandemic negatively impacted their mental health and 69% said they feel burned out at work. Among that younger cohort, 13% said they had at least 10 patients in their direct care who died as a result of the virus.

Other responses from the survey further illustrate the gravity of COVID-19 surges that occurred throughout the country last year.

Among those working in hospitals, 56% said their intensive-care units were over capacity at some point during the pandemic. In both hospitals and nursing homes, 34% said they ran out of personal protective equipment at some point.

Such conditions also strained staffing levels, according to the AAIHR survey of more than 1,000 RNs across the U.S. taken from March 9 to March 26. Nearly 60% said they knew a nurse in their unit or hospital who was exposed to COVID-19 on the job and became seriously ill. About 20% said they knew a fellow nurse who died from the virus.

In the KFF survey, respondents expressed mixed sentiments about their jobs going forward. While more than three-quarters said they feel hopeful when going to work, about half said they also feel burned out or anxious. More than half said they think the pandemic will abate and normal life will return, but not until early 2022 or later.

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