COVID-19 wreaks havoc on healthcare workers’ mental health

Published July 21, 2020, 1:08 PM

by Gabriela Baron

Mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and burnout are common among healthcare workers in this time of pandemic, advocacy group MentalHealthPH said.


Psychologists Riyan Portuguez and Jeemon Bacaoco said stress, toxic cultural environment, limited number of workforce, poor job design that leads to overwork, lack of hazard pay, extended work hours, exposure to massive deaths, and fear of contracting the disease are causing mental health problems to healthcare workers (HCWs).

“Aside from exposure to stressful situation, HCWs are also experiencing an increase in the number of deaths of their patients due to the severe effects of the virus. Being exposed to massive deaths can be traumatic to some individuals,” Bacaoco added.

And mental health problems are already taking its toll on physical health, the group said. Most of those experiencing mental health problems experience increased body fatigue, headache, too much or lack of sleep, difficulty in breathing, increased heart rate, muscle pain, low immune system, loss of appetite, and insomnia.

MentalHealthPh said there are healthcare workers reaching out to them for psychological help. Although the group is not offering psychological services, they make sure that they direct healthcare workers to organizations who offer services for free.

“We have posted a list of organizations providing psychological services amidst the pandemic in our social media accounts so that people including HCWs would know where to seek professional help. Also, we constantly post infographics for people to learn mental health relevant information and be constantly reminded that they should also pay attention to their mental health,” Bacaoco noted.

Bullying, psychological neglect

Bullying in the medical training program and psychological neglect are also among the challenges faced by healthcare workers.

Some first year medical residents are reportedly being forced to go on straight hospital duties due to lack of manpower as some staff have either tested positive for the coronavirus, undergo quarantine, or have resigned due to overfatigue. Others reported being forced to wash plates and to pay for their senior residents’ food.

“Workplace bullying per se is considered as an occupational hazard, and working during this pandemic outbreak even more so. This pandemic outbreak worsened the condition of our doctors who are currently at risk of developing mental illness due to systemic bullying,” Portuguez underscored.

Healthcare workers who experience workplace bullying are more likely to perform poorly, more prone to workplace error, and more likely to experience low self-esteem. Prolonged exposure from workplace bullying will lead to burnout, dissatisfaction, sleep disturbance, poor attention, loss of confidence, and enthusiasm at work.

There are, however, existing government policies that protect workers from workplace bullying such as Anti-Office Bullying Act of 2016 and Republic Act 11055 (An Act Strengthening Compliance With Occupational Safety and Health Standards and Providing Penalties for Violations Thereof).

Nurses from a public hospital in Manila, in an interview with Manila Bulletin said the hospital fails to give them the psychological service they need.

Longer working hours, limited transportation, and mental health stigma make it difficult for them to seek consultations.

“We were too busy with our hospital duty. 12 hours shift kami (We are working 12 hours every day) in order to fulfill all the nursing care we had to do plus due to [transportation] issue before. And there was no opportunity to seek professional help anywhere else due to ECQ (enhanced community quarantine),” said the nurse who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“It’s hard to find a mental health doctor. Especially sa culture ng Filipino (Especially in our Filipino culture). Di naman tayo like Western countries (We’re not like Western countries) wherein [attending] therapies is no big deal. Sa atin kapag nagpatingin sa psychiatrist, baliw na agad (In the Philippines, when you consult a psychiatrist, you will be labeled as crazy),” she added.

Reducing psychological distress

MentalHealthPH co-founder Yves Zuñiga underscored the importance of taking care of one’s mental health.

“If mental ill-health becomes neglected especially during this pandemic, it can be the next wave of public health concern of our health care system. Now more than ever, it is time to invest in mental health. If mental conditions are not addressed, these too have detrimental effects to our health in the long run,” he noted.

Zuñiga suggested engaging in recreational activities to improve mental well-being, such as keeping open communication and practicing seeking professional help.

He also recommended the use of grounding technique as good coping skill like proper breathing exercises and refocusing one’s self to the present situation.

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