SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes, COVID-19, continues to spread around the world with a devastating social and economic impact. Undoubtedly, health care workers are essential to overcoming this crisis. If these issues are left unaddressed, low morale, burnout, or absenteeism could lead to the collapse of health care systems.
Historically, the health care industry has been one of the most hazardous environments in which to work. Employees in this industry are constantly exposed to a complex variety of health and safety hazards.
Particularly, risks from biological exposure to diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV, and currently COVID-19 are taking a considerable toll on health care workers’ health and well-being. Health care workers are leaving their families to work extra shifts, dealing with limited resources, and navigating the chaos. On top of all that, they are sacrificing their lives through these uncertain times.
Despite their resilience, health care workers – like the general population – can have strong psychological reactions of anxiety and fear during a pandemic. Still, they are required to continue their work amid uncertainty and danger.
Current research studies on COVID-19
Several studies have identified the impact of working in this type of environment during previous pandemics and disasters. In a study of hospital employees in China during the SARS epidemic (2002-2003), Ping Wu, PhD, and colleagues found that 10% of the participants experienced high levels of posttraumatic stress.1 In a similar study in Taiwan, researchers found that 17.3% of employees had developed significant mental health symptoms during the SARS outbreak.2
The impact of COVID-19 on health care workers seems to be much worse. A recent study from China indicates that 50.4% of hospital employees showed signs of depression, 44.6% had anxiety, and 34% had insomnia.3
Another recent cross-sectional study conducted by Lijun Kang, PhD, and associates evaluated the impact on mental health among health care workers in Wuhan, China, during the COVID-19 outbreak. This was the first study on the mental health of health care workers. This study recruited health care workers in Wuhan to participate in the survey from Jan. 29 to Feb. 4, 2020. The data were collected online with an anonymous, self-rated questionnaire that was distributed to all workstations. All subjects provided informed consent electronically prior to participating in the survey.
The survey questionnaire was made up of six components: primary demographic data, mental health assessment, risks of direct and indirect exposure to COVID-19, mental health care services accessed, psychological needs, and self-perceived health status, compared with that before the COVID-19 outbreak. A total of 994 health care workers responded to this survey, and the results are fascinating: 36.9% had subthreshold mental health distress (mean Patient Health Questionnaire–9 score, 2.4), 34.4% reported mild disturbances (mean PHQ-9, 5.4), 22.4% had moderate (mean PHQ-9, 9.0), and 6.2% reported severe disturbance (mean PHQ-9, 15.1). In this study, young women experienced more significant psychological distress. Regarding access to mental health services, 36.3% reported access to psychological materials, such as books on mental health; 50.4% used psychological resources available through media, such as online self-help coping methods; and 17.5% participated in counseling or psychotherapy.4
These findings emphasize the importance of being equipped to ensure the health and safety of health care workers through mental health interventions, both at work and in the community during this time of anxiety and uncertainty.
Future studies will become more critical in addressing this issue.