April 15, 2021—Stress is a normal part of most healthcare professions but, as COVID-19 swept across the nation over the past year, occupational stress among healthcare workers reached extreme levels.
Pierre Morris, MD, family physician and program director of Wayne State University School of Medicine / Ascension Providence Rochester Family Medicine Residency, remembers when his staff’s anxiety began ramping up.
“During the spring of 2020, at the peak of the pandemic, our residents and attending physicians were confused and terrified as little was known about the COVID-19 virus. We all knew the potential consequences of infection, and how quickly our hospital and ICU had reached capacity. We were also keenly aware of the challenges of securing appropriate personal protective equipment, which was in very short supply,” said Dr. Morris.
In a survey of 1,119 healthcare workers conducted by Mental Health America between June and September 2020, 93% of respondents reported experiencing stress, 86% reported experiencing anxiety, and 76% reported exhaustion and burnout. Seventy percent were having trouble sleeping and more than half were experiencing physical symptoms such as headache or stomachache.
Dr. Morris says the residency program and hospital system he works for has come a long way in the past year, "but we continue to experience the continued anxiety and stress caused by the cyclical behavior of COVID-19 and the broader social impact that continues to restrict our lives.”
It Can Help to Talk About It
Anticipating the emotional distress that COVID-19 would bring, a behavioral health team from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) created a statewide crisis counseling program in April 2020, called Stay Well, to help front-line workers and other heavily impacted individuals. Stay Well, which is funded by a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant, offers:
- The Stay Well counseling line, providing emotional support from trained crisis counselors, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To reach a Stay Well counselor, dial the state’s COVID-19 hotline at 888.535.6136 and press “8.” Counseling is free and confidential.
- Virtual support groups for first responders, healthcare professionals, and direct care workers (among other vulnerable populations). These sessions are held via Zoom and moderated by Stay Well counselors. Participants have an opportunity to connect with others who can relate to their experiences and reactions. To register, visit Michigan.gov/StayWell.
- Psychoeducational webinars. Tailored to specific audiences, these webinars help viewers understand that their emotional reactions to pandemic stressors are normal. The webinar for first responders and healthcare workers acknowledges the feelings associated with compassion fatigue and offers coping tips. The webinar for direct care workers explains burnout and suggests ways to alleviate it. You can schedule a live webinar for your group by contacting Senior Outreach Specialist Erin Wallace at firstname.lastname@example.org, or watch recorded webinars at Michigan.gov/StayWell.
Early Intervention is Key
The Stay Well program’s motto, “Be Kind to Your Mind,” is a gentle reminder that there should be no shame or stigma associated with getting emotional support if the ongoing pandemic is getting you down. In fact, it can keep serious mental health issues at bay.
“We know that people who face constant, overwhelming stress can develop mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, or stress-related disorders,” said psychiatrist Dr. Debra Pinals, MDHHS’ medical director for behavioral health. “That’s why it’s important for healthcare workers to take stock of their mental wellness and seek help.”
Dr. William Fales, state medical director in the Division of EMS and Trauma, agrees. He adds that family physicians should also ask patients about their mental health—particularly about signs of depression or substance over-use—as part of routine primary care encounters.
“Often that’s perfunctory,” Dr. Fales said. “But if the patient is a first responder or another type of front-line worker, the doctor should really engage with them and say, ‘It’s been a tough year, you must be under stress. Have you heard about Stay Well?’”
For more information, including written mental health guidance for COVID-19 front-line workers, visit Michigan.gov/StayWell.