Bridging the Gap: COVID-19 and the Mental Health of Frontline Workers

A Conversation with Christopher Stoudt, LPCC and Behavioral Health Specialist

Bridging the Gap is a series of conversations designed to spotlight the challenges of accessing and practicing behavioral health in various communities. Through open and honest dialogue, we aim to address barriers and specific needs with expert recommendations and online resources in the hopes of increasing awareness, improving accessibility to behavioral health care, and inspiring further conversation that can bring us together.

 

Nearly six months since the beginning of widespread lockdowns were first mandated, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have an outsized impact on the behavioral health of our nation.  And now, recent reports from JAMA and others point to a ‘second wave’ of mental health devastation.   Already saddled with high levels of employee burnout, the healthcare industry has been turned upside down. Long hours, fear of infection, helplessness, and more are contributing to growing levels of behavioral health issues for frontline workers in 2020.

 

We recently spoke with a frontline worker on the topic of behavioral health who elected to remain anonymous. “The worry of being exposed to this virus created a lot of anxiety,” she mentioned. “The possibility of added exposure in a hospital or at testing sites and bringing it home to my family made it difficult to manage and cope with my stress and anxiety at times.” In this Bridging the Gap, we speak with behavioral health specialist and licensed professional counselor Christopher Stoudt on the growing need for behavioral health support for frontline workers during and beyond the pandemic.

 

Can you talk briefly about your own experience and background as a care provider?

 

My experience is in community mental health and working within integrated primary care settings. During my time working in primary care, I witnessed the toll of being a frontline worker. These providers care for large caseloads daily, while having to meet increasing administrative and regulatory requirements placed on them by health systems and managed care entities. These demands alone can overwhelm even the most-grounded professionals. Even mental health professionals, who spend a large chunk of our educational experience exploring ourselves through self-reflection to unravel any personal issues that may interfere with our ability to deliver care, still experience burnout and challenges that impact our own mental health. Now, with COVID-19, the stressors have just been compounded and expanded.

 

What are some ways to move upstream and be more proactive about this issue? 

 

This problem isn’t new, but it has certainly gotten more severe since the start of our current health crisis. Many health systems and educational institutions have taken action to attempt to address the behavioral health needs of front-line works, but there is certainly more that can and should be done. Enhancing the curriculum, the availability of resources and improving access to education and tools is critical. That is not to say this is a simple task and will take an investment from their employer.

 

Workplace burnout can impact more than just job performance for healthcare professionals, it can impact nearly every aspect of life.

 

Care providers also need to consider actions that they can take independently to help stave off burnout. Taking the onus to strengthen resiliency skills, build support systems, practice meaningful self-care and setting healthy boundaries and limits can be extremely empowering. These skills will help front-line workers continue to serve to their fullest capacity in the face of adversity and hardship. 

 

Workplace burnout is a topic in nearly every industry, but seems to be at a record high in the healthcare field, how does psychological distress manifest itself in workers differently in this field compared to others?

 

Workplace burnout can impact more than just job performance for healthcare professionals, it can impact nearly every aspect of life. People may experience challenges with sleep, irritability, anger, fatigue or other physical or emotional symptoms. In severe cases, burnout can lead to more significant physical and mental conditions.

 

Research has shown that burnout can also have an impact on patient care in the form of medical errors, increased patient mortality rates, and reduced patient satisfaction. It can also lead to greater job turnover and decreased workforce efficiency or productivity among healthcare professionals. There are also some who think that burnout in healthcare may already be contributing to the anticipated physician and nurse shortage.

Behavioral Health Specialist Chris Stoudt

 

What kinds of evidence-based treatment would be most helpful to frontline workers struggling with their mental health during COVID-19? 

 

Frontline workers have built a life dedicated to helping and caring for others, which can lead them to neglecting their own needs, especially when it comes to emotions.  Any type of intervention that helps people slow down, engage in more healthy activities such as eating better, improving sleep and getting regular exercise would be helpful to frontline workers. 

 

Finding the time on our own and finding someone can be a challenge in itself. We often just put it off because we tell ourselves that we are ok and can deal with the pressures until we don’t or can’t. – anonymous healthcare worker

 

For those who find that their mental health challenges are impacting their ability to function at home, work or in the community, engaging in an evidence-based treatment such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) may be helpful. CBT can help frontline workers develop a new perspective on the challenges they face, find new ways to cope, and begin to engage in behaviors that will support their health and wellness.

 

Any communities, groups, or resources you can recommend to frontline workers seeking support?

 

There are options that frontline workers can easily find with a quick online search. There is a Physician Support Line as well as many other online resources for healthcare workers, such as those available through Mental Health America. There are also a large number of health systems and managed care providers who are making resources available to frontline workers. People should seek out these resources as well as utilize their Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for support in times of need. 

Additional Behavioral Health Resources for Frontline Workers.

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