Here’s Exactly How Leaders Can Address Healthcare Professionals’ Anxiety Amidst COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken the world by storm and has become the focal cause of worry for every country. The coronavirus disease has touched, affected and changed the way of life for everyone regardless of which nation, race, continent or socioeconomic group they belong to. 

Unfortunately, the patients’ pouring into hospitals and healthcare facilities has no sign of turning into a trickle in the near future. The disease can rapidly spread in people and cause severe symptoms that need immediate and effective medical care. That is taking a toll on the healthcare facilities because there are just not enough beds, ventilators or healthcare professionals. Currently, the healthcare staff in hospitals are on double shifts and working to their maximum capacity.

Anxiety Faced by Health Care Professionals and Its Sources

There is a growing demand for the healthcare workforce including nurses, physicians, clinicians, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, and doctors. They are not just wanted in adequate numbers but countries need to maximize the ability of each professional to care for the growing number of patients. Healthcare professionals have to be able to perform to the best of their ability for an extended period of time since the treatment of critically ill patients could last weeks and months. Amidst these needs and expectations, healthcare professionals like everyone else are coping with societal shifts and emotional stress while being at a greater risk of exposure to the virus under the extreme workload. They are facing moral dilemmas in an uncertain environment that is evolving rapidly. It is causing anxiety and feelings of uncertainty among them. 

What can the leaders do to help them? There are some considerations for supporting the healthcare workforce so that they can provide better care to the patients. 

As leaders develop support systems to help healthcare professionals, it is important to understand the specific sources of their fear and anxiety. Addressing those concerns would be more effective as compared to highlighting general stress management techniques.

If you’re in a position to help the healthcare professionals, the best way to go about it is to simply ask them their concerns. Did you know that listening sessions with groups of health care professionals held during the beginning of the pandemic revealed three major areas of concern? As Tait Shanafelt confirmed in the detailed article, they were:

  1. Fears and concerns of healthcare professionals
  2. The kind of behavior they needed from their leaders
  3. The kind of tangible support they thought would help them

Further discussions around these three areas revealed eight specific sources of anxiety these healthcare professionals were feeling:

  1. Possible lack of access to protective gear
  2. Possible exposure to COVID-19 by attending patients and infecting their families
  3. Lack of quick testing in case of exposure to COVID-19 and infecting the workplace
  4. Uncertainty on the organization’s reaction to their personal and family needs in case of infection
  5. Access to childcare during increased workload, work hours and school shutdown.
  6. Support for personal needs because of long work hours (food, transportation, accommodation)
  7. Ability to provide proficient medical care if positioned to a new area
  8. Lack of access to the latest information and communication

These sources of anxiety can affect the confidence of healthcare professionals in themselves which can further affect their ability to stay calm and offer reassurance to the patients. Once these sources of anxiety are understood, health care leaders and organizations can develop specific plans to address these concerns and help the workforce.

How You Can Help/Support the Health Care Professionals

To address the sources of anxiety, an organization can develop precise support systems and plans that allow the health care professionals to feel heard, protected, prepared, supported and cared for. Examples could be:

  • Creating feedback channels like listening groups, town halls, email suggestion boxes so that health care professionals feel their voice is affecting the decision-making process. Healthcare professionals must feel heard.
  • Providing adequate personal protective equipment and offering access to testing facilities if the symptoms of the disease show up. Healthcare professionals can be given information on how to prevent taking the infection home. Healthcare professionals must  feel protected.
  • Providing training, access to a critical knowledge base, backup and other experts. Healthcare professionals must  feel prepared.
  • Providing support for physical needs like healthy meals and water during work hours. For emotional and psychological support, organizations can set up webinars with psychologists touching topics of anxiety, insomnia, fear and moral distress. Healthcare professionals must  feel supported.
  • Providing lodging support to health care professionals who live far away, child care support, paid time off in case of infection. Healthcare professionals must  feel cared for.

Organizations and leaders can take a proactive approach by developing such action plans within their healthcare facilities even if the current healthcare professionals are not coming up with requests or being verbal about their anxiety. Solving a problem for healthcare staff before it arises can comfort them and reassure them that their leaders have their back and are supporting them in these turbulent times. Healthcare professionals need this assurance and more importantly actions from their organizations and leaders that they and their families are supported on all fronts – medically and socially – in case they develop the infection.

It is imperative to also develop a “care plan” for healthcare professionals who develop an infection. The plan could give details about the compensation they will continue to receive, the treatment facility they can expect from their workplace and the process of rejoining the workplace once they are healthy. Such a plan shall remove ambiguities and give confidence to the healthcare professionals to focus on their work without thinking “what if I get sick?”

What Health Care Professionals Want from Their Leaders

In addition to the discussed actions to address their anxiety and fears, healthcare professionals want to see visible leadership from their leaders during this time of crisis. Leaders such as nursing leaders, department heads, hospital executives and division chiefs could come up with creative ways to connect with their teams and increase the moral support. The leaders will have to assure the team members that they understand the sources of anxiety, and plans are in development to address their concerns.

Health care professionals want to be heard. They appreciate individuals in leadership positions visiting hospitals and units where COVID-19 patients are being cared for. They don’t want all the answers and solutions to all the problems. They just need to be able to feel heard, listening to and acknowledged for their efforts. Since health care professionals are often self-reliant, they may not ask for help. Leaders have to encourage them to ask for help when needed in the face of working long hours so that they don’t make tough decisions alone.

 

Offering Gratitude

Lastly, one cannot deny the poignancy of a genuine expression of gratitude. Gratitude, because healthcare professionals are willing to put themselves in possible danger for their patients. The final unsaid request that healthcare professionals would have is to honor them. A genuine expression of gratitude and acknowledgment of their selfless effort can be very powerful and reinforce their compassion to overshadow their fears and anxiety in these difficult times.

But let’s remember: gratitude needs to be expressed and made believable by visible action plans that allow all healthcare professionals to feel heard, protected, prepared, supported and cared for.

 

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