On the frontline: how healthcare workers can support themselves and each other

For healthcare professionals helping those impacted by COVID-19 pandemic, caring for yourself and your colleagues has never been more important.

The current coronavirus pandemic is like nothing Australia’s healthcare workers have seen before. And while the response has been one of resilience, dedication and compassion, it’s essential to acknowledge the enormous pressure that they are under.

Feelings of stress and anxiety are likely to exist, and it’s possible that many feel overwhelmed by the need to stay up-to-date as the situation evolves. Dealing with a fearful public only adds to the emotional and mental strain. No matter what role you play in Australia’s health care system, COVID-19 is likely to be having a huge impact on your life.

Ally Francis, spokesperson for the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), says that it’s entirely normal for GPs to feel anxious and stressed – they’re on the frontline working hard to slow the spread of this virus and care for their patients. 

"Many are balancing their work with family commitments and could also be understandably worried about the health of their family members, as well as colleagues," she says. 

Not knowing exactly what to expect over the coming weeks and months may also be contributing to how you feel.

Dr Jessica Dean, a current director of Beyond Blue and advanced intensive care trainee at Melbourne’s St Vincent’s Hospital, agrees that the uncertainty is having a big impact on the wellbeing of health workers at this time.

"For me personally, it’s a combination of feeling nervous and unsure about what this will be like at its peak, and at the same time feeling very ready to stand up and help,” says Dr Dean. 

She says making personal sacrifices has become the norm for many healthcare workers."That’s what comes with this virus for us. Many doctors I know are moving out of home and into ‘shared doctor houses’ to avoid increasing the risk of coronavirus for their families. It’s a very unusual experience and time for all of us."

Managing stress and seeking support

 One thing’s for sure: as a healthcare worker, however you’re feeling, you’re not alone. And being medically trained and educated to manage challenging situations like this doesn’t mean you’re immune from an unhealthy stress response that can increase the risk of burnout.

It’s important for healthcare workers to remember that having difficulty dealing with the additional stress right now is most definitely not a sign of weakness. And that just like everyone else, you’re entitled to healthcare when you need it.

"When it comes to their own mental health and wellbeing, many GPs sometimes need to be reminded to apply the same good advice they give to their patients to themselves," says Ms Francis.

"All GPs should have their own GP, someone who can let them be the patient for a while and tend to their mental and preventative health."

As a nation, Australia is incredibly grateful for everything you’re doing during these extremely challenging and confronting times. But as well as remembering how much you’re appreciated, there are some practical strategies you can use to maintain your health, and particularly your mental health, as a frontline worker.

1. Practise self-care

According to the RACGP, maintaining a healthy diet, scheduling regular exercise and committing to good sleep habits need to be priorities. For right now, healthcare workers are the country’s most important resource.

"We need to do what we can to make sure we’re well enough to work, and to prevent fatigue and burnout as much as possible," says Dr Dean.

Healthy lifestyle behaviours can often be one of the first things to go in stressful times, but now more than ever, we need to keep them up.

Additional self-care strategies that can support your mental health and wellbeing include debriefing with colleagues regularly, actively practising mindfulness and continuing to participate in activities that you enjoy.

2. Seek support if you need it

 "It’s a time when we need to encourage each other to recognise when our peers may need help and feel supported to recognise that in ourselves, too,” says Dr Dean.

“If in doubt, particularly in the current situation, speak up and seek help."

A number of official support networks are available for healthcare workers in Australia, including GPs.

"GPs shouldn’t hesitate to reach out and there are dedicated support services that can help," says Ms Francis.

As Australia’s largest professional general practice organisation, the RACGP is here to support GPs and make sure they can continue doing the essential work they do on the frontline, caring for our community.

Other support services include:

3. Stay connected to your friends and family

 Doing this is essential for your mental health and as a way of coping in times of stress.

Maintaining connectedness can be a real challenge.

"Finding time depending on your roster isn’t always easy and of course if you’re isolating yourself physically from your family, that’s another hurdle, but making the effort to do it can make a world of difference," says Dr Dean.

It can be as simple as phoning or texting a friend or using videoconferencing technology to check in with a family member.


Try to remember …

  • The coronavirus pandemic is a challenge unlike anything Australia has seen before.
  • As a healthcare worker, you may be feeling anxious, overwhelmed or unsure what lies ahead.
  • Just because you’re medically trained doesn’t mean you’re immune to the mental health impacts of this pandemic and feeling stressed is not a sign of weakness.
  • Looking after your health and wellbeing is more important than ever.
  • Continuing to live a healthy lifestyle as much as possible will help.
  • Support services are available and it’s vital that you use them when you need to.
  • Staying connected to your loved ones is crucial.


Accessing Support Services

If you need assistance please visit the dedicated Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service. Trained mental health professionals are available to talk to you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, via phone.

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.

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