Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses and other healthcare professionals were reported to experience twice the rate of clinical depression than the general public. Then the pandemic came; and while nurses were willing to step up, the price they paid for their heroism has been a terrible strain on their mental health.
Over the past twelve months, many nurses have been redeployed to work long hours in unfamiliar environments in which there is a high risk of exposure to COVID-19. Nurses have had to deal with demanding workloads, long shifts, PPE shortages, and the fear of catching the virus and passing it to loved ones. Additionally, nurses have been being attacked for working with COVID-19 patients, heckled, spat on, and verbally abused by family members of those they are trying to care for.
Therefore, it is no surprise that nurses are getting mentally ground down in a time as unpredictable as this. According to a Nursing Times survey conducted in March, 44% of almost 1,200 nurses who responded to the survey described their mental health as “bad” or “very bad”, 62% of respondents said their mental health was “worse” or “much worse” now than it was a year ago, and 84% felt they were either “a little” or “a lot” more anxious than before the pandemic began.
Independently of the Nursing Times survey, the International Council of Nurses reported nurses are experiencing unprecedented levels of stress and there is strong evidence nurses are at “high risk for full-blown stress response syndromes, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic illness, and burnout”. The organization called for more mental health support for frontline nurses to prevent the “consequences that may not be apparent now but may emerge in the future”.
What is Being Done to Better Support Nurses’ Mental Health?
Throughout the country, dozens of programs have been set up to better support nurses’ mental health. These range from free pet care to assigning therapists to strategic locations (i.e., cafeterias, staff lounges, etc.) where nurses can access them easily. The American Medical Association also offers free assessments and provides resources for both individuals and healthcare organizations to care for the mental health of all healthcare professionals during the crisis.
A range of helplines have been set up by nursing and mental health organizations to support nurse wellbeing, and some healthcare organizations have created designated wellbeing, or “wobble” rooms for nurses to take a break. However, the range of support services can be variable from one healthcare facility to another, and while some healthcare facilities might provide excellent mental health resources, nurses often don’t have the time to take advantage of them.
Some responses to the Nursing Times survey imply that, despite the efforts of healthcare providers, not enough is being done to support nurses’ mental health. One nurse said they were often unable to use wellbeing rooms because of time constraints, staff shortages, and a lack of changing facilities; while another commented: “We are constantly told we need to have a rest, get support, relax, take a break away from everything – and yet there is no time set aside for us to do just that.”
Would Nurse Mental Health Days be Such a Bad Idea?
One possible way to address the compounding mental health issue is to give nurses periodic mental health days – days when, instead of reporting for work, they were offered paid time off to speak with a counsellor or “take a break away from everything” outside the healthcare environment. While it may be logistically difficult to organize time off when staffing shortages exist, the failure to give nurses the chance to heal could result in more nurses leaving the profession due to burnout.
Ideally, the mental health days off would be compulsory (rather like HIPAA training) to avoid scenarios in which nurses feel guilty about leaving colleagues with more work to do and report for work when they are supposed to be taking a break. There should also be some mechanism in place for providing feedback so healthcare organizations can determine whether giving nurses additional time off is meeting their mental health needs.
The current Nurses Month (extended from the annual Nurses Week) is an ideal time to pilot such a program and would not only show a commitment to better supporting nurses’ mental health, but would also likely receive widespread coverage across the industry. This year’s theme for Nurses Month is “Nurses Make a Difference.” Furthermore, organizing staffing to give nurses time off and avoid shortages may not be as logistically challenging as one might imagine with a staff management solution such as Rave Alert’s geo-polling module.