Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, health care workers were celebrated as frontline heroes. They worked long hours, exposed themselves to illness, and witnessed death while somehow managing their own fears, stresses, and personal responsibilities.
But even for a profession characterized by empathy and dedication, the years of emotional losses and relentless demands have taken a toll on many health care workers.
Stressors Persist Post-Pandemic
According to the AMN Healthcare Survey of Registered Nurses, the number of nurses who reported feeling “a great deal” or “a lot” of work-related stress grew from 65 percent in 2021 to 81 percent in 2023. Clearly, the support they felt during the COVID-19 pandemic has waned. And to make matters worse, a National Nurses United survey from late 2022 found that about 40 percent of nurses reported an increase in workplace violence.
Prior to the pandemic, the U.S. had been experiencing a nationwide shortage of health care personnel. That trend doesn’t look like it will be reversing anytime soon. A recent study predicts there could be a shortage of up to 450,000 bedside nurses by 2025. And by 2034, the country could also be facing a shortage of up to 124,000 physicians.
“We’re now operating in a mostly post-pandemic environment, but health care workers aren’t feeling much relief due to the impacts of staffing shortages,” said Diana Lehman, BSN, RN, MBA, vice president of Case and Condition Management at Independence Blue Cross (Independence). “Thankfully, many employers are sensitive to the mental health needs of their providers and are trying to address them where they can.”
From Federal Initiatives to Self-Care
To help address the high rates of burnout in health care workers, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has launched a Health Worker Mental Health Initiative that aims to:
- Improve data, screening tools, training, resources, and policies to address health worker mental health;
- Identify workplace and community supports for health workers;
- Reduce stigma related to seeking and receiving care for mental health; and
- Eliminate barriers to accessing care.
Hospitals are trying to combat nurse burnout by offering flexible schedules, including days off for mental health and wellness checkups. On the job, experts recommend breaks for food, drinks, and rest, as well as scheduling that gives staff adequate downtime at home between shifts.
Many health care workers recharge by spending time with family and friends. “My children are my form of self-care,” said Christina Milligan, CRNP, of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) Primary Care, one of Independence’s 2023 Celebrate Caring Winners. “They are my world, and when I can be focused on them and be present, the stress disappears. I also like to exercise.” Christina says she finds barre classes, a form of exercise that focuses on mindfulness, tremendously helpful.
Meditation, gardening, listening to music, journaling, and reading are other popular activities that can reduce stress.
For more information about mental health, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.