Mental Health a Widespread and Ongoing Issue in Health Workers

The COVID-19 pandemic had a tremendous impact on health workers’ mental health, but a new report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that health worker burnout preceded the pandemic and is an ongoing issue.

The report, “Vital Signs: Health Worker-Perceived Working Conditions and Symptoms of Poort Mental Health – Quality of Worklife Survey, United States, 2018-2022,” examines the mental health of healthcare workers before, during, and since the pandemic.

What the Report Indicates About Health Worker Mental Health

cdc-logo-310x310The report utilizes data that includes self-reported mental health symptoms. In 2018, 1,443 adults responded to the survey, which included 226 health workers. In 2022, 1,952 adults responded, including 325 health workers.

The report found key differences in reported symptoms from 2018 to 2022. In 2018, health workers reported experiencing 3.3 days of poor mental health during the previous 30 days. In 2022, that increased by 1.2 days to 4.5 days. Additionally, healthcare workers reporting feeling burnout very often increased from 11.6% in 2018 to 19.0% in 2022. The data indicates that healthcare workers continue to face a mental health crisis in 2022, even though we may be past the most acute phase of the pandemic.

The report also reveals key information that may help organizations better support their healthcare workers. In 2022, the chance of burnout in healthcare workers decreased if they trusted management. Having supervisor help, having enough time to complete their work, and feeling that their workplace supported their productivity also resulted in a decreased chance of burnout.

Understanding Healthcare Worker Mental Health

To better understand the implications of this data, we spoke with Dr. LeMeita Smith, LPC, NCC, director of clinical services at United Health Services and psychological advisor at Tarotoo. Dr. Smith explains that several qualities about the senior care industry may negatively impact worker mental health.

“Senior care work is emotionally and physically demanding, often characterized by long hours and the responsibility of caring for individuals in their most vulnerable states,” she says. “This environment can be a breeding ground for mental health issues among staff. The emotional burden of forming close connections with residents, particularly those who are deteriorating or nearing life’s end, can cause intense sadness and emotional drain. Additionally, the physical demands and the necessity for continual attentiveness and care can result in ongoing stress and burnout.”

She notes that staff in senior care organizations must also cope with resource limitations, and such limitations can lead to increased feelings of helplessness and frustration. “This overwhelming sensation can feed into anxiety and depressive states, as staff may feel incapable of delivering the quality of care they wish to offer.” Since healthcare settings often have a hierarchal structure, staff may have limited involvement in decision-making, leading to decreased job satisfaction.

Dr. Smith explains that the pandemic has also impacted the mental health landscape of senior care staff. “Initially, the fear of infection and the rapid changes in protocols created an environment of uncertainty and anxiety,” she says. “As the pandemic progressed, staff witnessed increased morbidity and mortality among residents, often under isolating conditions due to lockdowns. This exposure to repeated loss and grief, compounded by the need to fill in for family members who couldn’t visit, has likely left lasting emotional scars.”

The psychological aftermath of the pandemic continues to affect staff. The prolonged stress that staff faced during the pandemic may manifest in symptoms including ongoing anxiety, stress, and PTSD. The stress may also manifest as burnout, in which staff experience emotional fatigue, a sense of detachment, and a reduced feeling of personal achievement. “This burnout not only impairs their mental health but can also affect the standard of care they provide,” says Dr. Smith.

But it’s important to realize that the pandemic has also likely changed the dynamics within senior care facilities. Staff continue to face ongoing challenges like staffing shortages and increased safety protocols. “These factors can contribute to a sustained feeling of being overworked and undervalued, further impacting mental well-being,” notes Dr. Smith.

How Senior Care Organizations Can Support Staff Mental Health

The report indicates that the chance of burnout decreases when staff trust their managers. “Managers play a pivotal role in shaping the workplace culture,” Dr. Smith explains. “They can cultivate an environment where mental health is openly discussed and destigmatized.” Managers might incorporate regular check-ins with staff, create opportunities that allow employees to voice their concerns, and make mental health resources available and known to staff.

She suggests that supervisors lead by example and demonstrate emotional intelligence and show empathy toward their staff. “By openly discussing their own strategies for managing stress or mental health, they can normalize these conversations,” she says.

Additionally, managers need to be proactive rather than reactive. “This includes recognizing early signs of mental health struggles and offering support or adjustments before situations become critical,” Dr. Smith explains. “Regular training in mental health first aid and awareness can equip them with the necessary skills.”

How to Address Burnout in Senior Care Organizations

Dr. Smith explains that since burnout in healthcare workers is a multifaceted issue, senior care organizations need to look beyond traditional support structures. “The first step is recognizing the individuality of each staff member’s experience,” she says. “Burnout isn’t a one-size-fits-all problem; it’s deeply personal. Therefore, interventions should be equally personalized.”

She encourages organizations to create a recovery and support plan for staff. The plan could involve temporary adjustments in work responsibilities or hours, provide staff with professional development opportunities, or it could help ensure that staff receive regular breaks during their shifts.

“Moreover, we need to cultivate an environment where employees feel safe expressing their struggles,” says Dr. Smith. “This could be facilitated through regular ‘Wellness Check-Ins’ – informal, confidential discussions where staff can share their feelings without fear of judgment or professional repercussions. These check-ins can be a mix of individual and group sessions, encouraging a sense of community and shared experience.”

She notes that celebrating and acknowledging small victories often goes overlooked. Simply recognizing a job well done or thanking staff can help boost morale.

“On a more individual level, offering mental health days, flexible scheduling, and professional development opportunities can help staff feel more in control of their work-life balance. Encouraging and facilitating peer support groups within the community can provide a space for staff to share experiences and coping strategies, fostering a sense of camaraderie and mutual support,” she explains.

When it comes to monitoring staff morale, Dr. Smith suggests senior care organizations take several steps:

  1. Implement regular, anonymous staff surveys to gauge overall morale, job satisfaction, and mental health status.
  2. Establish peer support groups, allowing staff to share experiences, challenges, and coping strategies in a supportive environment, building a community within the workplace.
  3. Appoint “mental health champions”—staff members trained in basic mental health support to be points of contact for colleagues who might be struggling. They can provide initial support and assist in seeking professional help if needed.
  4. Observe changes in behavior or performance, like a sudden drop in performance or increased absenteeism, which might signal the need for an intervention.
  5. Cultivate an environment where mental health is normalized and free from stigma, including regular communication from leadership about the importance of mental health.
  6. Implement wellness programs including activities like yoga, meditation, or group exercises to promote physical health and provide mental health benefits.

With mental health being an ongoing issue for healthcare staff, it’s essential that senior care organizations integrate proactive measures to safeguard the well-being of their staff. Implementing these support systems can contribute to a healthier overall workforce and employees who are better suited to provide high-quality care to residents.

Topics: Facility management , Featured Articles , Leadership , Risk Management , Staffing