Tired, fed up, exhausted: COVID healthcare worker toll revealed

Anastasia Tsirtsakis

7/10/2021 4:15:27 PM

For most on the COVID-19 frontline, stress has increased – but the vaccine rollout and prospect of eased restrictions has boosted morale.

A stressed doctor sitting at her desk.
Stress and pressure experienced in the workplace has increased for 86% of healthcare workers during the pandemic, a survey has found.

Throughout the past 18 months, the emphasis has oftentimes been on how GPs can support their patients.
But beyond being leaders in the pandemic response, healthcare workers are also members of their communities, and new research has given insight into the personal toll some have experienced.
Conducted by Mental Health Australia, a survey completed by 444 healthcare workers, found more than half (56%) of respondents are fed up, exhausted, and disappointed with the restrictions in their state, and 74% said the public health measures had had a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing.
This was compounded by their experience at work, with 86% reporting that stress and pressure had increased, with 41% having sought professional help to discuss their mental health.
Speaking to newsGP, RACGP President Dr Karen Price said she wasn’t at all surprised by the findings.
‘I think if you surveyed the whole population, you’d probably get similar numbers,’ she said.
‘As a GP in Melbourne, I haven’t yet met a person where this pandemic hasn’t disrupted their life and therefore incurred a loss of some sort – there’s significant distress amongst everybody.’
Prolonged tiredness and fatigue (57%), problems getting to sleep or staying asleep (36%), experiencing ‘digital fatigue’ (32%) and a lack of motivation to participate in day-to-day activities (32%) were some of the specific mental health impacts listed in the survey.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom.
Compared to last year, the majority of respondents (58%) said they were now feeling more positive about the future and better equipped to cope.
The vaccine rollout has also boosted morale, with 60% of the respondents involved (59%) saying it has made them feel grateful, empowered, and that they have a purpose.
Dr Price said while the rollout had been a source of stress, that GPs’ experience and training allows them to understand the significance of their work on a global scale.
‘Healthcare workers, overall, are a fairly resilient bunch given the things we deal with on a day-to-day basis, besides a pandemic,’ she said.
‘So we are people who are generally likely to do what’s called “active coping”. That means getting on with sorting through the problem. And so vaccination, testing, advising people – this all helps contribute to coming out of this terrible situation that the whole world is in.’
For the majority of respondents (66%) having a strong support network emerged as an important factor, with just over a third (34%) having reached out to a trusted friend or family member for mental health support, an 8% increase from a similar survey conducted in September 2020.
Other strategies used to manage mental health and wellbeing included catching up on favourite TV shows (55%), exercising outdoors (50%), eating well (44%), reading for fun (34%) and connecting one-to-one with a loved one through walks or exercise outdoors (26%).
But while rising vaccination rates and the prospect of eased restrictions is cause to celebrate, Dr Price emphasised that ‘the pandemic has a long tail’, and that getting through the next phase will require guidance and significant support from government for GPs and practice staff.
‘It’s not going to be just a quick flick of the switch and it’s back to what we were; the restrictions are just going to be eased and carefully watched,’ she said.
‘We’re going to have to rapidly rejig our work plans because we’re going to have COVID in the community and GPs are going to be pivotal in once again managing that community care, [and] managing mild and moderate degrees of COVID.
‘So there’s going to be a lot of work and we need support, and infrastructure support.’
The survey findings come ahead of World Mental Health Day, which takes place on Sunday 10 October.
Dr Price said the day is a timely reminder of the importance of self-care for everyone, healthcare workers included. In addition to staying active, eating well, and keeping to a routine, she encouraged people to seek help if they need it.
‘These are all incredibly difficult things and the pandemic has just shown how important it is for us to maintain our human and community connections,’ she said.
‘Clearly going for walks, petting the dog, taking some time out for a breather are a really necessary part. But if you’re still not responding to that … then it’s probably time to go and seek some help and get yourself back on track.
‘We always recommend every citizen has their own GP because that’s a good place to start if you are feeling overwhelmed or you just need to talk it through, and there are the EAP services that the college provides for confidential counselling should it all get too much.
‘Our western society has a bit of stoicism and that particularly manifests in medical practice. But like you might do if you broke your arm, you need to take some time out and put some plaster on – this is the same sort of thing.’
The majority of survey respondents were from Victoria (29%), New South Wales (28%) and Queensland (24%), and 28% were GPs, while practice nurses comprised an additional 11%.
To gain further insight on the pandemic’s impact on GPs, newsGP is this week asking GPs how working during the pandemic has affected their mental health.
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