Managing expectations as a healthcare worker during the coronavirus

Dealing with COVID-19 on the frontline as a healthcare professional and being labelled a “hero” means it’s more important than ever to look after your mental health and wellbeing.

As a nation, Australia has made a concerted effort to say “thank you” to our healthcare workers during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s deserved and appropriate, but it can also have an unhelpful side-effect.

“As the pandemic has gone on, we’ve seen healthcare workers being applauded from the streets, on wards and in newspapers all around the world, including here in Australia,” says Maithri Goonetilleke, a medical doctor and Associate Professor in Global Health at Monash University.

“It’s profoundly appreciated, but it does create an underlying sense of duty. So, on the one hand it’s incredible that Australia’s healthcare workers are being acknowledged for the work they’re doing, but on a different level, it places a lot of pressure on them to be super-human,” says Goonetilleke.

“For a profession that already comes cloaked in a sense of stoicism and [the feeling] that we should be stronger and more resilient than other people, it can mean we feel like a failure if we need to reach out for help ourselves. Unfortunately, this often means we don’t seek support.”

Thankfully, there are steps you can take to look after your mental health and wellbeing during these unprecedented times.

What you can do

Know that stress and anxiety are common right now

A recent survey shows that work stress as a result of coronavirus is impacting more than two-thirds of Australia’s healthcare workers, and that nearly 80 per cent of them are fearful of contracting COVID-19.

“For many healthcare workers, there is a constant anxiety that they’ll catch it and share it with someone they know,” says Goonetilleke.

“As well, some healthcare workers are even experiencing abuse due to people seeing the increased exposure they have to the virus as a threat.

“Coronavirus has also delivered a change in normal practice for healthcare workers, which has been a big leap for a lot of people.”

A survey shows that some GP clinics in Australia have experienced a significant loss of income due to coronavirus, and job and financial insecurity are risk factors for feelings of worry, unease and anxiety.

“Plus, because it’s a moving target, as healthcare workers, we understand that until the virus is gone, the threat is always there and always imminent. That alone can be harmful for mental health and wellbeing, so if you’re feeling stressed or anxious, you’re not alone.”

Avoid downplaying what you’re experiencing.

Australia has done well in slowing and reducing the growth of coronavirus compared to other countries.

“It’s dangerous if you think you shouldn’t be feeling whatever it is you’re experiencing because of that fact,” says Goonetilleke.

“Belittling what you’re going through isn’t helpful for you or your patients.”

Likewise, he says you shouldn’t dismiss your feelings just because you’re not at the frontline.

“You may not be working in a COVID-19 clinic, dressed in full PPE every single day, but the way all healthcare workers are practising medicine is likely to have been impacted by coronavirus – whether that’s incorporating social distancing, having patients wait outside a surgery or carrying out fewer consultations. Those impacts can lead to cumulative stress over time," he says.

Remind yourself it’s okay to not be okay

Remember that being a healthcare worker doesn’t mean you are – or should be – super-human, says Goonetilleke.

“We’re just as mortal and fragile as anyone else, and feeling like we’re not okay is a perfectly human response, particularly at a time like this.”

In fact, far from feeling like you’re a hero, you may even find yourself wishing you weren’t a healthcare worker right now.

“No one signs up for a pandemic when they decide to train to be a doctor or a nurse or any other kind of healthcare worker. So, again, whatever you’re feeling is okay.”

Seek support when you need to

Take advantage of the many services available.

“Doing so certainly doesn’t mean you’ve failed somehow – on the contrary, as healthcare workers we owe it to the community we serve to be as healthy as possible in mind and body, COVID-19 or no COVID-19. Reach out and get support if you need it.”

Hand-n-Hand provides a free pre-clinical peer support service that matches dedicated, experienced mental health volunteers with healthcare workers who request assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service provides regularly updated information, advice and strategies to help you manage your wellbeing and mental health, as well as 24/7 access to trained counsellors. You can call them on 1800 512 348.

You can also connect with other community members on our dedicated community forum: Coping during the coronavirus pandemic.

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