Addressing anxiety about the coronavirus (COVID-19): Healthcare workers

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in the United States continues to evolve, with more cases and quarantines popping up on news feeds everywhere. The closer it gets to their homes, the more people are worrying. In our last post, “Addressing anxiety about the coronavirus,” we talked about the things people can do to help feel less anxious and more in control. But what about the people on the front lines? Nurses, doctors, healthcare workers and other medical professionals who are testing for and treating patients with COVID-19 are at a higher risk of contracting it than the general public. What can they do to take care of themselves, physically and emotionally?

As Kushal, Gupta and Mehta stated in Study of Stress among Health Care Professionals: A Systemic Review, “Work related stress is a potential cause of concern in healthcare workers and is associated with decreased job satisfaction, days off work, anxiety, depression, sleeplessness , medical errors and near misses.” Long shifts and working with sick people—some of whom are gravely ill—can lead to burnout and anxiety from their normal jobs. These already-struggling healthcare workers are now faced with COVID-19 unknowns and demands, including taking care of people with confirmed cases of the virus.

While some people may feel they are at the whims of the virus, there are things healthcare workers can do to take some control over their work environment and manage their fear or anxiety.

  • Know what your organization’s plans are. Read the business continuity plan and know your role. Talk to your team members about cross-training and covering for each other if one of you gets sick. In addition, ensure you are following proper protocols for cleaning and preventing spread. Visit cdc.gov for helpful information. This is particularly important for behavioral health providers who may not always think about universal precautions.
  • Surround yourself with green. If your facility permits, bring in a few plants to liven up your surroundings. Being around plants has a calming effect on people. Employees who work in offices with plants tend to feel better about their jobs, worry less and take fewer sick days.1 If you can’t have plants in your space, take time to look out the window and find some green. You may find that is enough for a quick mental break and perspective.
  • Use small tools to create a calming environment. A small water feature, a sand garden or hourglass, stress balls and other items can provide a quick way to refresh your mind. Or just step back, take deep breaths, stretch and/or meditate.
  • Find someone to talk to. Some hospitals have on-site or on-call chaplains; take advantage of them. Don’t be afraid to talk to your coworkers about how you are feeling. Chances are, they are feeling the same way and would welcome a discussion. Many medical settings offer a form of rounds that addresses the emotional impact of caring for a particular patient or theme. Similar semi-structured discussion groups with peers can be very helpful in handling stress and preventing the development of PTSD.2
  • Get professional help. Be open to contacting your organization’s EAP, if you have one, or reach out to a therapist if you find yourself developing “compassion fatigue,” where your desire to help others erodes.
  • Limit exposure to media. Media outlets have a tendency to sensationalize stories, so it’s important to consume news thoughtfully and with a critical eye.

In addition, do all the normal things to take care of yourself: try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals, exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep, and avoid alcohol and drugs. Doing these things can have a positive impact on your mental health and help you manage anxiety.

For more information and tips, visit MagellanHealthcare.com/COVID-19. We wholeheartedly thank you for all you are doing to combat this outbreak.

1: https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/ss/slideshow-health-benefits-houseplants.

2: See Schwartz rounds.

Disclaimer: The content in this blog article is not a substitute for professional medical advice. For questions regarding any medical condition or if you need medical advice, please contact your healthcare provider.

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2 comments on “Addressing anxiety about the coronavirus (COVID-19): Healthcare workers

  1. Thank you for these helpful suggestions. However, they remind me of asking physicians who are dealing with the frontlines of our dysfunctional health care system even before this virus to deal with the burnout caused by the system by changing their own behaviors, rather than asking the system to be more functional (e.g. get the EMR to work better, let me have 20min instead of 15min with my complex pts, let me work to the top of my license instead of making me do clerical work). I think the fear and anxiety I am having about this virus are not about workload or physical exhaustion (not yet) but about genuine fear about running out of PPE and not having enough tests or quick turnaround time and all the other dysfunctions of the pandemic. We are being sent into battle without protection, and asking us to mediate while the bullets fly (or the aerosolized droplets permeate the bandanas!) is not the answer as we watch our colleagues take ill and even die, and wonder if this is going to happen to us too. What do you suggest for addressing this in a deeper level?

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