6 ways to avoid a mass exodus of health workers

MOST Australians count back to a holiday season with newfound freedom surrounded by family and friends.

Meanwhile, frontline health workers are preparing for a possible summer increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

They are also concerned about the potential impact of the new Omicron variant.

A summer raise would put even more pressure on health workers who, as our research shows, already experience high levels of distress.

While the bulk of the responsibility for the well-being of clinical staff rests with health services and governments, we can all do our part to prevent a mass exodus of health workers.

What did our study find?

Healthcare workers often experience high stress levels due to long hours of work or shift work, providing emotional support to patients and their families, and patient deaths. The pandemic has increased this stress.

We interviewed nearly 3,700 health workers, including nurses, midwives, doctors and paramedics such as social workers, physiotherapists and occupational therapists in Australia and Denmark.

We have found that COVID-19 negatively affects the psychological well-being and personal lives of health workers, despite the relatively lower number of cases and deaths in Australia compared to other countries.

About a quarter of those surveyed reported symptoms of psychological distress, including depression, anxiety and stress.

Their main concerns were getting the virus, putting family members at risk and caring for infected patients.

We also found:

  • three quarters of health workers agreed with the statement “people close to me worried about my health”
  • almost a quarter of respondents avoided telling people they worked in a health service. Several said they received a negative reaction when wearing their uniform in public
  • pregnant staff worried about the potential impact of COVID on themselves and their baby
  • wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) was difficult and resulted in headaches and dehydration
  • health workers had difficulty managing their paid work and family responsibilities, including helping children learn from a distance.

Employees who believed their health department had responded appropriately to the pandemic and provided sufficient support to staff had better mental health than those who had not.

This suggests that investing resources in supportive initiatives helps protect the well-being of health workers and health services to support and retain staff.

Without adequate support, the safe, high-quality care we rely on could be eroded by massive job exodus, rising absenteeism rates and reduced quality of patient care.

What can we do to help?

We all have a role to play in protecting the well-being of this crucial workforce and ensuring the sustainability of health services.

The government and health services urgently need to:

1) implement best practice initiatives in mental health and wellness for health workers. A range of initiatives were implemented during the pandemic, but if they do not meet the needs of health workers, they are unlikely to be used or successful. New models of support need to be co-designed with health workers and tested so that we know what works

2) build an ongoing system to monitor the mental health and well-being of health workers. Most of the data collected on the well-being of health workers during the pandemic comes from studies at a single site at one point in time. Large, ongoing studies can help us track the well-being of health workers and any changes over time, including the long-term impact of the pandemic

3) encourage health workers to access support if necessary.

The public can also play a role by:

4) get vaccinated, including your booster, when you are eligible. And following the public health guidelines in your area. High vaccination rates help reduce the risk of new variants emerging and protect us if they do. A booster dose will give you stronger, longer-lasting protection against COVID

5) using 000 and hospital emergency departments only for medical emergencies. If the situation is not urgent, contact your general practitioner, your local pharmacist or Health Direct on 1 800 022 222 (or Nurse-On-Call in Victoria at 1300 60 60 24)

6) be kind and respectful to health workers, who suffered higher than normal levels of aggression and abuse during the pandemic. Health workers need to feel safe at work.

Sara holton is a senior researcher at Deakin University.

Bodil Rasmussen is Professor of Nursing at Deakin University.

Karen Wynter is a senior researcher at Deakin University.

Kate Huggins is a senior researcher at the Institute for Health Transformation at Deakin University

This article is republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent official WADA policy, the MJA Where InSight + unless otherwise stated.

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