A year ago, no one would have ever believed that 2020 would have turned out to be one of the most devastating years on record. Amidst the most destructive hurricane season ever, ravaging wildfires and a world-wide pandemic, frontline workers – first responders and healthcare professionals - have been the most heavily impacted by the environment and its vices over the past 12 months. Appropriately, the topic of self-care for healthcare workers has grown in popularity, but unfortunately, many healthcare workers find themselves with barely enough time to breathe, much less breathe deeply.
Worse, healthcare workers constitute the most affected group of people in the fight against the COVID-19 virus as they have been challenged with helping the over 8 million people who have contracted the virus in the U.S. (And, at the time of this writing, nearly 230,000 of them have themselves succumbed to (1) the virus.) Additionally, there are an estimated 21 million individuals working in healthcare across the country (1) who are often forced to work under extremely difficult and stressful conditions.
Importance of Self-Care for Healthcare Workers
The wellbeing and emotional resilience of healthcare professionals are key components of continuing healthcare services during the COVID-19 pandemic, as stated by the National Center for PTSD (2020). Some of the common mental effects of the pandemic experienced are anxiety, panic, depression, anger, confusion, ambivalence and financial stress.
Research shows that, during this intense period, healthcare professionals have been observed to experience serious psychological problems and to be at risk in terms of mental health, (2) further demonstrating the importance of self-care for healthcare workers who are often so busy caring for others that they neglect themselves.
Vaccination: A Form of Self-Care
Studies have shown that healthcare professionals have been considerably more worried about catching the infection during a pandemic (Chua et al., 2004). Their frequent exposure to COVID-19 patients has raised anxiety and fear of virus infection. As a result, levels of stress, depression and anxiety have increased, which has led to some of them becoming traumatized (McAlonan et al., 2007). (2) Studies have also shown that, in order to raise the psychological resilience level of healthcare professionals working during the COVID-19 pandemic, their quality of sleep, positive emotions and life satisfaction need to be enhanced. (2)
Thankfully, the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccines has helped with much of the psychological stress, and the prioritizing of frontline healthcare workers has eased much of the tension. However, while being vaccinated against COVID-19 takes some of the fear away, it doesn’t eliminate the need for self-care for healthcare workers, especially in light of the trauma that many of them have endured over the past year.
4 Simple Ways for Healthcare Workers to Practice Self-Care
Several other behavioral and social science researchers have developed strategies that can be used to support optimum mental health. Dr. George Everly Jr., a psychologist and professor at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, who has more than 40 years’ experience studying the psychological impacts of disasters, provides the following insights to help build resilience during these trying times. (3)
- Set realistic expectations. Do not anticipate that timelines and expectations will be short lived. This will only lead to extreme disappointment when milestones are not met. Anticipating that the pandemic is a more chronic vs. acute condition can help level set the amount of stress that comes with anticipation.
- Try to keep a positive attitude. From the greatest adversities, opportunities can emerge.
- Get quality sleep – Quality sleep acts as a protective factor against the psychological problems that healthcare workers might experience. (4) A lack of sleep can magnify levels of anxiety and depression.
- Reach out to others. Remembering that others are here and willing to help in these challenging times can make all the difference in someone’s outlook on life, and those who reach out to others for support are often able to persevere through challenges they never thought they could overcome.
Self-Care for a Healthy Future
Healthcare professionals know first-hand the strain that COVID-19 has put on healthcare institutions and the people who work in them. While the future looks promising with the distribution of vaccines, it’s imperative that workers not neglect their own physical, emotional, and mental health.
There may indeed be a light at the end of the tunnel in the fight against the novel coronavirus, but the need to practice self-care for healthcare workers is here to stay. Healthy frontline workers are one of the key components to healthy communities. In fact, healthcare workers investing in their own wellbeing is one of the greatest contributions they can make to public health.
2 - Bozdağ, Faruk, and Naif Ergün. “Psychological Resilience of Healthcare Professionals During COVID-19 Pandemic.” Psychological Reports 0033294120965477. 13 Oct. 2020, doi:10.1177/0033294120965477
4 - Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress, 2020; Dewey et al., 2020; InterAgency Standing Committee, 2020; Lai et al., 2020; W. Li et al., 2020; Liuet al., 2020; Siyu et al., 202