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‘We need fuel’: Front-line workers prepare for stress of second wave of COVID-19

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Nova Scotia health-care professionals say now is the time for a conversation about mental health and burnout. As Elizabeth McSheffrey reports, these workers know what to expect but that doesn't mean they're feeling less stress as the second COVID-19 outbreak intensifies. – Nov 27, 2020

Nova Scotia is still in the early stages of its second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and already, health-care officials say front-line workers are feeling the stress.

With an ample supply of masks and gowns, a well-rehearsed set of procedures and additional testing capacity, they’re much better prepared than they were the first time, but having gone through it once means they know what may be coming.

“I think this time, people know we can get through this, but there is a fatigue because people know how much effort it’s going to require,” said Dr. Jackie Kinley, director of the Nova Scotia Health Authority’s (NSHA) Capital Mental Health Day Treatment program.

“So I think people are coming in a little bit weary, and that anticipation on the one hand has been very helpful in getting ready, but it’s also generating some hesitation and a little bit of fear.”

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Read more: New research underway to screen for stress, burnout in Nova Scotia health-care workers

As of Friday afternoon, there were 119 active cases of COVID-19 in the province. So far, none of the patients are being treated in hospitals.

That’s why now is the right time to have a conversation about front-line workers’ mental health, said Dr. Sarah McMullen, a physician at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax.

“I think the biggest consequence — and we’re already seeing some of these effects — is front-line staff shortages,” she explained.

“That’s only going to get worse, and this is a non-renewable resource.”

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She said COVID-19 has exposed a “bigger mental health issue” within the health-care system that needs addressing: high baseline levels of stress, particularly in intensive care units.

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There should be regular mental health checks on staff during non-pandemic times, she added, and those should be ramped up in times of crisis.

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“I think COVID hasn’t broken the system, but it’s demonstrated the cracks that existed in the system already, and demonstrated that we need to pay attention to these on a day-to-day ongoing basis, so when a crisis like this occurs, we’re not scrambling to find resources for mental health and wellness.”

Read more: Front-line nurses suffering psychological distress, burn-out amid COVID-19: association

Several mental health crisis lines are available to anyone experiencing stress during the pandemic, but the NSHA also ramped up its own supports for staff. In the first wave, it expanded resilience workshops and grief sessions, and launched a new program that helps workers cope with individual challenges in a group or one-on-one setting.

Nurses, doctors and other health-care workers often toil long and unpredictable hours, and both Kinley and McMullen emphasized the realistic “small things” they can do to improve both their, and their colleagues’, mental health.

That includes creating a buddy system for checking in, going for a walk, taking regular food breaks, and taking part in virtual programming.

“Compassion is free and it is rocket fuel and we need fuel,” Kinley added. “So being kind to yourself and also being kind to others — those little acts of kindness are good for the soul.”

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The public has a role to play in minimizing front-line worker stress as well, said Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union. Speaking from Truro, she said nurses experience higher levels of stress when the public flouts COVID-19 health restrictions — particularly those applicable to travel.

“I know it’s difficult, but nurses are frustrated that they’re doing their very best to make sure people are safe and kept safe,” she explained.

“I think Nova Scotians have to go back to zero and start again to the masking, the washing of your hands and the social distancing.”

It’s particularly important now, she added, with the holidays on the horizon. If the public does not comply with restrictions, and exposures and cases rise, she said that will make it difficult for nurses to take much-needed time off with their families.

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