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Home E-Weekly October 1, 2020

Address the Post-Pandemic Mental Health of Your Staff

Published: October 1, 2020

Create an atmosphere where people can speak their minds and offer the help they need.

The pandemic has made everyone's lives more difficult and stressful, but healthcare providers have suffered significantly. Some surgical professionals shifted to the COVID-19 frontlines when elective surgeries shut down. Others had their work and personal lives turned upside down. Now, as they return to whatever could be considered "normal," they carry heavy psychological burdens into the OR.

Karen Foli, PhD, RN, FAAN, an associate professor at Purdue University School of Nursing in West Lafayette, Ind., and coauthor of The Influence of Psychological Trauma in Nursing, offers these tips to help you make your facility the safest space possible for your staff.

  • First, how are YOU? To effectively lead, you must be mentally prepared for the task. "Honestly assess your ability to serve as a therapeutic listener and go-to person for your OR team," says Dr. Foli. "How do you feel about the stigma surrounding depression, anxiety and PTSD? Are you prepared to listen to the firsthand, individual stories of your nurses?" If not, become a referral agent by gaining a full appreciation and understanding of what your organization can offer those who are struggling, such as employee assistance programs. Another option: form in-house or social media support groups for employees.
  • Empathy is everything. To create a safe psychological space, focus on establishing a strong culture that promotes safety, empowerment and healing. "Mental health is rarely emphasized for healthcare workers who often suffer from burnout and compassion fatigue," says Dr. Foli. "If someone on your staff is struggling, listen with a tone of openness and acceptance instead of blame. Start the conversation with 'What's happened to you?' instead of 'What's wrong with you?'"
  • Look for troubling signs. The residual effects of mental trauma operate on their own timelines. "View everything through a trauma-informed lens, and understand that stimuli in the work environment can trigger flashbacks to what staff may have experienced during the outbreak response," says Dr. Foli. If an event occurs, take the staffer aside and ask if you can help. "Recognize what's happening, avoid retraumatizing the staff member and determine what they need to feel safe again," advises Dr. Foli.
  • Listen attentively. When staffers express feelings, don't talk over them. "Maintain gentle eye contact, follow social cues and pay close attention to body language, both yours and theirs," says Dr. Foli. "If you have a close enough relationship, perhaps you can gently touch the person's arm as a gesture of comfort." Summarize what the person just said to show you're listening and, if the situation warrants it, provide context. "Reassure them that their reaction is appropriate, and anyone in their position would likely respond the same way," says Dr. Foli.
  • Offer security and control. "Simply asking someone who's struggling for their thoughts on what would be most helpful for them is much more effective than telling them they could use more time off, or making suggestions about the help they need," says Dr. Foli.

It's not just the people who directly cared for COVID-19 patients who need a safe space and help. Everyone has been affected in some way by the pandemic. A positive result of this has been an increased recognition of healthcare providers' mental health. "We can create systematic approaches to supporting all surgical team members with the goal of recovery and post-traumatic growth," says Dr. Foli. "We can also create a new culture of support for mental health and compassion toward each other, letting go of past incivilities and giving staff members the right and space to recover from traumatic experiences."

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