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‘Human’ Healthcare Heroes, not Superheroes

Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Author name: Lee Health

Human Healthcare Heroes Graphic

When the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to shut down the world, healthcare providers kept going—many working more shifts and longer hours—to help patients diagnosed with COVID-19 survive something none of us had ever seen before.

A year later, these masked defenders of our physical and mental health continue to routinely expose themselves to a still largely unknown biological threat that has killed more than 500,000 Americans.

Healthcare heroes, we call them, deservedly so.

But while these professionals are helping their patients cope with stress, anxiety and sometimes unimaginable loss, they’re also trying to manage their own distress at what they are seeing, says Cathy Murtagh-Schaffer, a physician assistant at Lee Health.

“While there is a light at the end of the tunnel with vaccine distribution, the pandemic is nowhere near being over, and newer infectious variants are emerging,” Murtagh-Schaffer says. “Healthcare workers are feeling stressed, reporting exhaustion, experiencing anxiety, and suffering burnout. The pandemic is exacting a mental toll on our healthcare heroes.”

A recent survey quantified the pandemic’s effect on the healthcare industry's workforce, already at high risk for anxiety, depression, burnout, insomnia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. In a survey of 1,119 healthcare workers, respondents said they were:

  • Stressed out and stretched too thin (93 percent)
  • Worried about exposing loved ones (86 percent)
  • Emotionally and physically exhausted (76 percent)
  • Feeling overwhelmed (75 percent)

“People are feeling symptoms that they don't really know what to do with,” Murtagh-Schaffer says. “Unfortunately, because people don’t understand what they are experiencing, they tend to try to mask their mental pain with alcohol.”

She cites a recent study that reported overall alcohol consumption has increased during COVID-19 by 14 percent in men, by 17 percent in women, and heavy drinking increased by 18.8 percent.

“People are turning to alcohol in large amounts,” Murtagh-Schaffer notes. “Whether you’re a healthcare worker or not, we are all suffering and alcohol abuse has become particularly acute.”

Murtagh-Schaffer says one reason that healthcare workers are susceptible to substance abuse is the notion that they “must be stronger than the diseases, wounds, and trauma” they are facing in order to treat their patients.

“In many ways, healthcare workers are heroes, but underneath that superwoman/man exterior is a human being who is just as vulnerable to anguish as the next person,” Murtagh-Schaffer adds. “We all strive hard to be heroes for our patients, but we are subject to the same weaknesses and limitations as them.”

Trauma and Secondary Stress

Murtagh-Schaffer discusses the phenomenon of vicarious trauma and secondary traumatic stress, which have increased among healthcare workers. These typically occur in professionals who work in high-stress and trauma-exposed fields, such as healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients.

“Healthcare providers are experiencing conditions that have been compared to a war zone,” she explains. “When we’re repeatedly exposed to another person’s trauma, illness and death, we can begin to take on the feelings of our patients. That’s vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress.”

Murtagh-Schaffer cites some examples that are routinely played out in healthcare facilities across the country.

“Imagine having to decide who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t,” she says. “Or imagine having to manage a limited supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) or being a new nurse thrown into the ICU, where every patient is critically ill. Now imagine having nowhere to go or no one to talk to about what you are feeling or have been exposed to. This is how burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder develop.”

Lee Health Resilience Education Support Team

To help protect its employees against job-related stress that can lead to burnout and PTSD, Lee Health developed the Resilience Education Support Team (REST).

Comprised of Lee Health leaders and team members, the group provides support and resources to meet mental health challenges while improving the emotional, psychological and spiritual health of team members throughout the health system.

“REST helps unit and department leaders understand mental health challenges and provides them with resources and confidence to intervene,” Murtagh-Schaffer explains. “The goal is to protect and support the mental health of our team members across Lee Health and help create a more comforting, healing and supportive environment.”

In addition to supportive internal and external resources available to all Lee Health staff, REST offers:

Mental Health Awareness

Mental and spiritual health awareness training for all system leaders and others interested in supporting their co-workers. A 90-minute telecourse, “Mental Health Awareness for Leaders,” which is required for Lee Health leaders, is designed to increase awareness and knowledge and give leaders the tools needed to notice and intervene when someone is experiencing a mental health challenge or crisis.

REST Deployment Teams

These are small teams of caring professionals who provide short-term support to a team of co-workers. The REST Deployment Teams assist with chronic stressors that may be affecting coping, resiliency or productivity.

Peer Support Coordinator

The Peer Support Coordinator can help a unit or department to establish a functional peer-to-peer supportive environment.

For immediate individual assistance, Lee Health also provides an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that offers counseling and referral services to help employees and families deal with a range of personal challenges.