Caring for our Caregivers: The Impact of COVID-19

Caring for our Caregivers: The Impact of COVID-19

We need to do better caring for our caregivers. During the current pandemic, we often refer to our healthcare workers as heroes. While I think it is important to thank those we appreciate often and genuinely, we also can’t lose sight of the fact that heroes are humans with limits.

Heroism doesn’t protect our beloved healthcare workforce from suffering; in fact, it makes them more vulnerable in many ways.  Like our nation’s active duty soldiers and veterans, physicians, healthcare workers, and caregivers of many kinds often function well in a crisis.  Often, the emotional and psychological danger doesn’t emerge until the crisis is over.  Sometimes people just stop being able to function in the middle of the crisis. The emotional and psychological demands simply exceed one’s abilities.  The point is this: the time to be watchful and act is right now.

The Challenge for our Caregivers

COVID-19 is a prolonged stressor, lacking consistent rules and ever changing. The pandemic has the capacity to challenge professional identity, our most important relationships, and our sense of what is meaningful and important.  We also have much yet to learn about any long-term impacts to the brain and nervous system, and how this may influence mental health over time.

In this current crisis, our healthcare workers must move on to tend to the next patient without any time to process what is happening. They don’t have the option of working from home. Some of them don’t feel they can even go home for fear of exposing their families to the virus. In many ways, this is a symbol of the sometimes-unreasonable tasks we expect of our physicians and providers. Levels of burnout and were already high before the pandemic.  This is now a crisis on top of an already fragile situation.

No one is completely immune to the many biopsychosocial impacts of COVID-19. But the need to respond to our healthcare workers is especially important. The recovery of communities everywhere will depend upon it.  It’s a time to work together – we either heal together or not at all.

What We Have Learned from Veterans

If we take our lessons from the veterans of almost every war, we will learn the following:

  1. Strength doesn’t happen by accident; it can be built by individuals, systems and communities.
  2. Avoidance increasingly fails us over time as a coping strategy, yet it can be the one thing in the moment that makes us feel safe.
  3. Those who recover well seek support, ask for help early, and engage in repeated self-care.
  4. It’s hard for leaders, helpers, and healers to ask for help. We must work on making it easier and break down the barriers to seeking help.

We are all fighting a war against a strange, new enemy. But the battle looks decidedly different in every community, in every hospital, in every health system and for everyone.  As such, the response must be community-based, sustainable, and driven by the tenets of psychological safety and empathic leadership.  The response will need to continue long after the war is over. As a result, it will shape the very future of healthcare.

Caring for Our Caregivers

Organizations everywhere can have an impact.  We are so fortunate in this community to have leaders and changemakers who are always willing to come to the table on difficult issues. This case will be no different.  We need to develop plans to promote help-seeking and self-care behaviors. We also need to encourage anonymity when needed. Caring for our caregivers may require reaching beyond our immediate community.

At Healthcare Network, we deliver primary healthcare in an integrated model to ensure both physical and mental health are encouraged for our patients. Our teams include both medical providers as well as clinical psychologists to promote a collaborative approach to healthcare that focuses on the whole person. Now more than ever, integration in healthcare systems will be critical to meeting the needs of our front-line caregivers.

Healthcare Network Cares

In May, Healthcare Network hosted a series of conversations tailored to caring for our caregivers. The series allowed them to discuss reactions, coping strategies, and resilience building related to COVID-19. While we recognize this is a small piece of a broad need that together the community will rise to meet, we also know too well the dangers of avoidance and of waiting too long.

Through a grant from Direct Relief, Healthcare Network will provide up to three free visits with mental health providers for essential frontline workers including but not limited to healthcare workers, protective service and first responders, grocery store workers, agricultural workers, educators, janitors and maintenance workers, and truck drivers in Southwest Florida.

Frontline workers who are interested in making appointments with mental healthcare professionals at Healthcare Network should call 239-658-3185. Appointments are available via telehealth or at Healthcare Network’s Nichols Community Health Center in Golden Gate. Learn more at HealthcareSWFL.org/Direct-Relief.

About the Author

Dr. Emily Ptaszek is President and CEO of Healthcare Network; prior to entering healthcare leadership, she previously worked as a psychologist at the Department of Veterans Affairs specializing in PTSD.

Jan 13, 2021 | COVID-19, Integrated Behavioral Health