Levels of stress, anxiety, depression and burnout have increased in health-care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new research out of McGill University.
While that may not be completely unexpected, the research — which looked at psychological distress and coping strategies of hospital health-care workers during the pandemic — also found about half of nurses and one out of every five physicians who responded to a survey expressed intentions to quit.
The results come as provinces across the country are grappling with a second wave of COVID-19, high case numbers and health-care systems are feeling the strain.
Jason Harley, a professor in the department of Surgery at McGill University, led the research and said the increases in stress, anxiety and burnout were “statistically significant.”
“What we found confirmed the pandemic has made a bad situation worse. The state of physicians’ and nurses’ psychological well-being before the pandemic was worrisome,” Harley said.
“In the context of the pandemic and in its aftermath, it’s going to be especially important for us to really be there and to provide the kinds of support that our health-care professionals need.”
The study analyzed information collected from 131 health-care workers at the McGill University Health Network in August.
The researcher said the percentage of health-care workers in the study who indicated intentions to quit would be the most concerning for patients.
“This is why it’s critical for healthc-are professional to be in good health, so they can deliver the highest quality of care.
“And that we don’t lose our health-care professionals to sick days, for example, because people potentially are feeling burnt out. That they are there to the best of their capacity,” Harley said.
Dr. Stephanie Smith, an infectious disease physician and director of infection prevention and control at the University of Alberta Hospital, said there is a “huge amount” of stress on frontline health-care workers.
“We’re seeing people coming into the hospital who are very ill. We’re seeing lots of people dying in the hospital,” she said, adding there is also concern about being exposed at work, contracting COVID-19 or bringing it home to families.
“I think that can be manageable for a short period of time but I think we’re getting into many months of this. I think that’s when it really starts to become difficult to manage.”
Smith said that difficulty to manage can sometimes result in people not wanting to be on the front lines anymore.
“When we look at what our capacity is or was in the hospital in the spring time, it is much greater than it is now and part of that is because we have fewer staff – because of either certainly some related to specifically to COVID-19 because of exposures… but others just saying they’re choosing not to work,” she said.
Smith said coping mechanisms include family support and having downtime, such as going outside for a walk.
But she admits there may be long-term consequences on health-care workers, especially since many hospital procedures have been postponed to build capacity for COVID-19 patients.
“We’re going to see the downstream consequences of that for quite some time to come.
“It’s going to be at a time when our health-care workers are exhausted so to be able to come out of this pandemic and hit the ground running is going to be, I think, quite challenging,” Smith said.
The research further found that while hospital counselling services were available to more than half of physicians and nearly two-thirds of nurses, only 10 per cent of physicians and 13 per cent of nurses used the resource.
“Are people aware of them? Sending email blasts is a great way of getting that information out there but other tactics might be needed as well,” Harley said.
Funding for the research was provided by the McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity and members of the research team include Drs. Montreuil, Lou, Feldman, Fried, Bhanji, Drouin and Lavoie-Tremblay.
Results of the study have been accepted for presentation at the Canadian Conference on Medical Education.