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Commentary: Protecting and supporting health care workers during the pandemic

Support for health care workers needs to be a priority as COVID-19 continues to put pressure on our health care system.

Protection of and support for health care workers needs to be a priority as the pandemic continues to put pressure on our health care system.
While personal protective equipment safeguards health care workers from transmission of COVID-19, new vaccines provide added protection for workers in high-risk settings. Nevertheless, researchers point out that “there’s no vaccine against health-care worker burnout.”

A 2020 McGill University Health Centre study, “Nurses and Physicians’ Distress, Burnout, and Coping Strategies during COVID-19," reported that 36% of respondents (50 % of nurses and 20 % of physicians) expressed intentions to quit. Along with working with the added risk of infection, respondents identified worry about health of family as their strongest stressor. The report co-author Jason Harley said: “It’s more important now than ever that healthcare professionals recognize that experiencing anxiety is normal. They should avoid isolation and rumination, and feel comfortable and safe reaching out for support, whether that be to friends, colleagues or counselling services.” 

Health care workers may also experience moral distress. According to the Canadian Medical Association, “moral distress is a psychological response to an experience of moral conflict, which is especially likely to occur during public health emergencies when there are extreme limitations affecting patient care and the safety of health care workers.” The physician’s task of triaging scarce resources, such as ventilators, oxygen and ICU beds may create moral distress. Affecting all members of the health care team, these situations warrant ethics consultation and team support to address the distress.

A CBC report (November 2020) reviewed a University of Alberta study of the toll of COVID-19 on health care workers. Lead researcher Dr. Nicola Cherry, an occupational epidemiologist, described the study’s goals: First, find out how many health-care workers already have antibodies to the virus in order “to identify work practices and exposures that could be improved and made safer.” Second, examine the state of workers’ mental health in order “to identify workplace practices and supports that could be improved to reduce stress.” 

Recognizing our inter-connectedness, we each need to do our part to keep families and communities safe during these challenging times. By following public health guidelines to prevent spread of COVID-19 and the added pressure on the health care system, we are also supporting health care workers.

Hazel Magnussen is a retired nurse and author of The Moral Work of Nursing: Asking and living with the Questions.