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 is my hope that, in creating this list, frontline workers will feel better understood and validated, while those not on the frontline may learn how to better offer their 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 usually would. Keep in mind that, although frontline workers may have to or choose to isolate themselves from family physically, it doesn’t mean that they have to isolate themselves emotionally.
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 remain an option, so long as there is physical distancing. Even short, positive, love-affirming texts throughout the day can make a world of difference.
Direct Interaction with the Disease
Imagine a poisonous snake is 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. 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, working long hours can also be draining, regardless of the type of work. Imagine being used to going for an evening walk and now suddenly having to be able to run a marathon. The demand for frontline workers continues to grow as confirmed cases of COVID-19 increase, 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 calm down or take a break quickly. Frontline workers are providing an essential service and are helping their community – use that as a basis to create meaning and satisfaction from work and to help 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.
Just today, Prime Minister Trudeau has pledged $2B to buy personal protective 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 focus on things that can be controlled rather than dwelling on things that can’t, and continue to remain positive and practice self-affirmations. 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, and witnessing illness and death around them all the time, frontline healthcare workers are at 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.
Dr. Brianna Jaris, C.Psych. is a clinical psychologist at CFIR. She has extensive experience in psychological assessment and diagnosis and the treatment of a wide range of psychological issues, including trauma, depression, anxiety. She is currently the head of CFIR’s Trauma and PTSD service.