As we all navigate through the uncertain time of COVID-19, frontline workers face a set of particularly unique challenges. What follows is a list of ways that frontline workers are being affected by COVID-19, with some suggested coping techniques. It’s important for us to recognize the hardships many frontline workers are facing in order to combat this disease, so that we can properly demonstrate our gratitude as well as to learn how to better offer support.
Isolated from Family/Friends
Being isolated from loved ones is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects frontline workers face. During a time when they may need it most, they may not be able to receive the same love and support from their family that they normally would. Keep in mind that, although frontline workers may have to or choose to physically isolate from family, it doesn’t mean that they have to emotionally isolate themselves.
Be creative – read bedtime stories over the phone or prop up a phone or tablet with video chat for dinner time. It might still be possible to meet in person, but with a degree of separation like a glass door or window. Also, activities like walks might still be an option, so long as there is still physical distancing. Even short, positive, love-affirming texts throughout the day can make a world of difference.
Direct Interaction with the Disease
Imagine there’s a poisonous snake living somewhere in your home. Every time you open the refrigerator to get food or hop into bed, you risk being bit. This is the reality that frontline workers are facing. Every person that they interact with and every surface they touch is a risk of contracting this disease. Their stress response is heightened for every moment of their day as they are at risk and may feel they can’t let their guard down.
Frontline workers may benefit from practicing short-term stress-reduction techniques throughout their day, such as grounding or breathing exercises, as well as practicing long-term techniques like meditation, exercise, or therapy outside of work (Another blog post that I wrote HERE offers some guidance). Continue to take precautions as necessary to help minimize risk.
Generally Chaotic Work Environments & Long Hours
Whether its hospitals at capacity, or grocery stores swarmed with people, frontline workers are generally working in a chaotic environment at this time. Furthermore, they are often having to work long hours, which can also be incredibly draining. Imagine being used to going for an evening walk and then suddenly being tasked with having to run a marathon. The demand for frontline workers continues to grow as confirmed cases of COVID-19 increases and as there is a need to cover shifts for those that are out sick.
Try different relaxation techniques before and after shifts and, if possible, create a sanctuary or safe space at work in order to have a place to quickly calm down or take a break. Rest assured, frontline workers are providing an essential service and are helping their community – using that knowledge as a basis to create meaning and satisfaction from work can help to maintain a positive attitude.
Lack of Equipment/Resources
Some workplaces have been extremely aggressive in trying to keep their workers safe. For example, grocery stores are sanitizing carts, have put up a plastic divider between customers and cashiers, and not accepting paper money. Despite best efforts, however, many places are experiencing a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as face masks. This significantly changes how frontline workers interact with people and how they do their jobs, and it can also lead to a general sense of uneasiness or not feeling safe. Furthermore, the added layer of PPE also affects the patient relationship by way of creating an extra barrier.
Prime Minister Trudeau has pledged $2B to buy protective personal equipment, in which Canadian companies are being enlisted to provide critical medical supplies like ventilators, surgical masks, and test kits. Until then, however, continue to remain positive and practice self-affirmations, knowing that help is on the way. Don’t repress worry or stress, however, but give proper times to process and handle those concerns.
Increased Risk for Mental Health Issues
Many frontline workers are reporting an increase in depressive symptoms, anxiety, insomnia, distress, and trauma-related disorders. Through direct contact with patients, as well as through vicarious trauma of other frontline workers’ experiences with COVID-19, frontline healthcare workers are at a significant risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as increased suicidal thoughts and/or behaviors. Some could also turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms and even addiction to help get them through this time of overwhelming anxiety, confusion, instability, and loss. Despite these growing mental health concerns, many still have to continue working and treating the ill.
It is important to remember that there can also be post-traumatic growth, not just distress during these times. There are important resiliency factors that could help buffer against developing any of the above-mentioned mental health disorders. These factors include, but are not limited to: not avoiding the situation and self-disclosure of distress or trauma to loved ones; having social support available to you and being connected with others (practicing safe physical distancing); spirituality, or having a sense of community or belonging; having an identity as a survivor, and finding hope and optimism wherever you can; helping others; and finding a positive meaning in the trauma.
Frontline workers should know that they are valued and appreciated for all that they are doing and sacrificing for the better of their community. I am offering pro bono services (1-5 sessions) for frontline healthcare workers in Ontario (through the Ontario COVID-19 Mental Health Network), and reduced cost services for other frontline workers. Please reach out if you need support – we are all in this together.