Supporting the mental health of health-care workers during COVID-19

“Health-care workers have always been heroes in my eyes,” said Louise Bradley, president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), herself a registered nurse and former hospital administrator. “But when a once-in-a-generation crisis like COVID-19 arises, we ask even more of an already overextended workforce.”

Ed Mantler, the MHCC’s vice-president of Programs and Priorities, agrees. “Pre-pandemic, 40 per cent of physicians and nurses were experiencing advanced stages of burnout. So we were already working hard to create a suite of training modules and resources to bolster the mental wellness of this critical workforce.”

Now, those tools are more relevant and important than ever.

“We know that the psychological toll of a pandemic can have serious consequences for health-care workers,” affirmed Bradley, who pointed to one study estimating that between 29 and 35 per cent of these workers experienced a high degree of distress during the SARS outbreak in a Toronto hospital. A similar survey of medical staff in Taiwan found that 93.5 per cent considered the SARS outbreak a traumatic experience.

Fortunately, health-care workers do not have to face the burden alone. A variety of mental health resources are now available to bolster their resiliency and improve their well-being.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, for example, offers a resource hub specifically for those working in health care during COVID-19, which features helpful advice, videos, and links to external supports.

The MHCC has spent many years developing various mental health resources in health care, including a recent webinar series exploring self-care for workers and advice for leaders during COVID-19.

“It’s important to recognize that health care has always been a demanding field, and that many of the mental health challenges workers are now facing will not disappear once the pandemic is over,” said Bradley. She urged health-care organizations to use proactive education measures for staff, such as posters like this to remind workers how they can manage anxiety and substance use.

For Mantler, “While resources for individual providers are important, enhancing mental wellness is also a matter of shifting a culture where stoicism has been the norm for far too long.”

Often, the first step toward improvement is assessment. Caring for Healthcare Workers — Assessment Tools is a helpful resource for doing so. It looks at a variety of psychosocial factors to help health-care organizations identify areas of vulnerability and take steps to improve psychological health and safety.

Creating a culture of mental wellness also takes commitment. A great way to understand what an organization is doing well and where there is room for improvement is through the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the Standard), a framework that provides comprehensive guidelines to promote positive mental health in the workplace. click_to_tweet

“I was hired to run a large teaching hospital many years ago,” Bradley recalled. “At first I felt my skill set wasn’t aligned with the role. But I soon learned I wasn’t there to tell medical experts how to do their jobs. I was brought in to change the culture they worked in.”

To help guide the implementation of the Standard in health-care settings, the MHCC co-developed the Caring for Healthcare Toolkit, which includes real-world accounts of health-care organizations adopting the Standard and nearly 40 practical tools to assist with that process.

For more on the MHCC’s health-care tools and resources, see our complete list.

For Bradley, the work to support health-care workers began long before COVID-19, and it will continue long after. “When the masks come off and the world re-opens, health-care workers will still be heroes, and they will still deserve our support.”