Healthcare workers overwhelmed by anxiety, planning to leave workforce

Healthcare workers overwhelmed by anxiety and planning to leave workforce


A survey conducted by a professor at the Royal Melbourne Hospital has found that more than two-thirds of healthcare workers are experiencing anxiety and more than half are reporting being ‘burnt out’ by their duties. 

Associate Professor Natasha Smallwood, a consultant respiratory physician and principal research fellow from University of Melbourne directed the survey which found respondents expressing intentions to leave their positions due to mounting concerns over their own state of mental wellbeing.

“The concerns we’re seeing are quite categorical,” Dr Smallwood told the ABC, “…people in very different health professional backgrounds, so nurses, doctors, allied health staff, all indicating that enough’s enough and they need to leave.”

“They’ve all got really significant reasons for wanting to leave but they’re all feeling guilty that they’re having to give up a role they love, but they’re having to make that decision. So, yes, I do think we will see people leaving the workforce.”

The results from the survey also found that 28 percent of respondents reported depression during the last few months.

Dr Smallwood believes a more rigorous systemic response to the issues causing mental health problems for the workers needs to be set up. 

“The focus should be on organisational leadership and good government response to care for healthcare workers,” she said. 

In August, the Victorian Government created the Healthcare Worker Infection Prevention and Wellbeing Taskforce which aimed to support and improve the safety and wellbeing of healthcare workers. But Dr Smallwood herself has not yet been able to meet with the taskforce.

“We are very keen to speak to them,” she said last Friday. “We have approached them and are keen to share our data with them to analyse these responses so that we can develop solutions.”

The survey also unveiled the importance of exercising and using apps to track respondents’ mental health to further improve their cognitive wellbeing.

“These need to be long term, not just reactive solutions put in place during a pandemic,” Dr Smallwood said. “[workers] want support, not just at an individualistic level of checking in once a week, and making the focus on having a resilient workforce, that we have to do it ourself.”

Among its many goals, the Healthcare Worker Infection Prevention and Wellbeing Taskforce aims to develop a coordinated strategy to manage, reduce and prevent healthcare worker infections, develop evidence-informed standards for good practice across health services on infection prevention and share information across the healthcare sectors.

According to Dr Smallwood, another practical step could be to implement consistent guidelines for personal protective equipment (PPE) across all healthcare environments, including hospitals, clinics and aged-care facilities. 

“That variation is actually really stressful if people work at multiple organisations, they have to remember to do something different every time they go to work,” she said. “They’re worried they’ll make a mistake, they’re worried about what that means for their patients but also if they make a mistake and bring that home.”

Last month, Dr Smallwood revealed to Sydney Morning Herald that her colleagues were seeing cancer patients who were delaying seeking medical advice because they were afraid of contracting the COVID-19 virus. 

“For my colleague, that was deeply distressing,” she said. “[the patient] was very young. He didn’t present until quite late … and that changed that patient’s treatment options.”

The pandemic is causing many healthcare workers to reconsider the future of their careers.

“I was talking to one of my trainees who was in clinic with me and she said, as a consequence of the pandemic, she was going to give up her dream to be a specialist,” Dr Smallwood revealed to NewsGP  in early September. 

“I’ve heard other people say, “I don’t want to work in this environment, this isn’t for me” … because they have felt unsupported. Particularly [because of] hierarchical relationships, which often occur in hospitals, people have felt that they had no choice and that they had to do certain things.” 

In July, the University of Melbourne released a report titled ‘The impact of COVID-19 on GPs and non-GP specialists in private practice’ that showed the extreme vulnerability healthcare workers faced.  

The report found that 61 percent of GPs admitted feeling more stressed than usual between April and May, and that many were “feeling tense, restless, nervous or anxious” over falls in income and a lack of protective equipment.

“Almost 50 percent of GPs were moderately or very dissatisfied with the ability to access PPE,” the report stated. “Higher levels of stress were associated with dissatisfaction with the ability to access PPE.” 

Nurses are also feeling the strains brought about by the crisis, working extra hours and losing sleep. Twenty-two year old Grace Tanner is a Melbourne-based nurse who told the ABC that she was enduring a series of difficult days.

“I’d go home for a few hours before returning the next day and you’re not getting quality sleep so you’re burnt-out before you start,” she said. “It does take its toll and the adrenaline does run out.”

In May, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published a report which highlighted the urgency of preserving the mental health of healthcare workers across the world.

“Good mental health…must be front and centre of every country’s response to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report stated. “Good mental health facilitates that people perform in key roles within families, communities and societies, whether taking care of children and older adults or contributing to their community’s economic recovery.” 

It recommenced three ways which governments can help minimise the mental health consequences of the pandemic, including supporting community actions that strengthen social cohesion, adding mental health and psychosocial considerations in national response plans and “investing in mental health interventions that can be delivered remotely.” 

Associate Professor Jane Munro, a member of the Healthcare Worker Infection Prevention and Wellbeing Taskforce, told NewsGP last month that “…the fact we have had over 3500 healthcare workers infected in Victoria is not OK.”

“‘The rest of Australia should also be on notice to make sure they are working to get all these systems prepared and people trained,” Professor Munro said. “This could happen anywhere with the right set up and load of COVID if the systems are not right.” 

“We need our contact tracing system as sorted as possible because that is the foundation piece of our COVID response,’ she continued. “We need the healthcare system ready to protect healthcare workers, and we need aged care to be protected and ready. We were not pandemic fit. Not just Victoria, the whole of Australia.”

Since its founding in August, the taskforce has prioritised guiding healthcare institutions about the changing environments to better protect against the threat of infection. 

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