As we continue to navigate uncertain times, healthcare professionals continue to face challenges, not least disruption to their workloads, practices and home lives. Some are exhausted by the experience, most feel stressed, and it seems many may be experiencing much worse than that.
Doctors have shared on Facebook and in radio discussions about their emotional responses to the pandemic. In an ABC Radio National program a group of GPs, specialists and nurses noted a sudden rise in burnout, heightened anxiety, inability to relax or sleep, excessive drinking and depression among medical practitioners dealing with the pandemic.1
'When you remove all the things in your life which have kept a sense of balance, including decent sleep, nutritious meals, connecting with friends, and exercise, it's easy to become quite emotionally depleted.' Without 'recharge time', healthcare workers would eventually struggle to concentrate and bring their best to the job each day,’ said Dr Caroline West, a GP and health broadcaster.
Dr West's experiences are supported by the findings of Beyond Blue’s national mental health survey of doctors and medical students in 2013. The study revealed that doctors were less likely to seek treatment because of a preference to self-rely or due to embarrassment and/or concerns over loss of privacy, impact on the right to practise and career prospects.2
Researchers have also drawn on a body of compelling evidence gathered in the aftermath of the SARS and MERS epidemics in 2003 and 2015. For example, a study of 550 doctors, nurses and other hospital staff at a Beijing hospital in 2006 found that 10 per cent of respondents had experienced symptoms of posttraumatic stress at 'high levels' since the SARS epidemic in 2003.
It’s clear from studies like these that pandemic events have significant mental health implications and our healthcare workers are especially vulnerable.
There have been measures implemented to address concerns about the mental health and wellbeing of Australians and New Zealanders during the pandemic, including the Australian Government’s Head to Health as well as the Pandemic Kindness Movement, which was created by clinicians for clinicians.
RANZCR also recognises these needs and the role we have in protecting the mental health of our members and recognising the promotion of mental health as an important aspect of our mission. RANZCR has developed a wellbeing toolkit that offers resources for Fellows, Educational Affiliates and trainees.
Given that doctors have a tendency to prefer self-help over asking others for assistance, it is worth considering what they might do for themselves to release psychological stress caused by work and improve their mental health.
In a year-long study of work engagement and wellbeing in Germany and Switzerland in 2010, researchers found 'job demands. . . are less harmful when employees mentally disengage from their job during off-job time.'3 Of course, switching-off and sharply demarcating work life from home life has added difficulty during a public health crisis, as many workers have opted to work remotely, usually from home, to help minimise the spread of the virus.
The evidence clearly indicates that, in addition to seeking help from others, when your stress levels get too high, you can use exercise to improve not just your physical health but also boost your own ability to safeguard your mental health.
Supporting our wellbeing with mindfulness, meditation and good sleep hygiene also boosts our physical and mental staying power. All of these can sound like small measures in the face of a large challenge. They can also prove surprisingly difficult to actually maintain, even if seemingly small.
But the sum total of developing self-preservation habits of seeking help; accessing available resources; exercising regularly; practising mindfulness and meditation; and just simply getting enough sleep can make the crucial difference to our ability to pull through.
Access the RANZCR wellbeing toolkit
1 ABC Radio National, "Mental health on the Covid frontline," All in the Mind, [radio program] 19 April 2020, https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/1 2 Fei Wu, Michael Ireland, Katherine Hafekost, and David Lawrence, The National Mental Health Survey of Doctors and Medical Students [report] (Melbourne: beyondblue, Oct. 2013), https://tinyurl.com/ra85vxd 3 Sabine Sonnentag and Carmen Binnewies, "Staying well and engaged when demands are high: The role of psychological detachment," Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 95, no. 5, 2010, 965–976.