Employers Should Not Ignore the Trauma of Frontline Workers

At the start of the pandemic, nurses were hailed as heroes, especially by their employers. But the applause was all rhetoric with little in the way of tangible action to demonstrate the value of nurses and healthcare professionals. Nurses and healthcare workers need more than empty words.

Even before the pandemic, things were not great for healthcare workers. But given the COVID-19 health crisis that has ravaged families, businesses and communities, the work environment is even more stressful. Healthcare workers need help processing and healing from COVID-19 related trauma, which is particularly acute for those who work in hospital settings.

Endless cycle of death and disease

The trauma engulfing nurses in hospital settings, is hard to overstate. “Nurses go into the profession to save lives, not watch as people lose their lives,” Nancy Hagans, a registered nurse and president of the New York State Nurses Association, told me. But in the first year of the pandemic, 3,600 healthcare workers reportedly contracted COVID-19 and died. In addition to watching patients lose their fight with COVID, nurses also watched helplessly as colleagues died. The seemingly endless cycle of death and disease offered little reprieve; many healthcare workers know someone who lost their lives, let alone worked in environments where they regularly saw people succumb to COVID.

In an investigative study conducted by KHN and The Guardian, journalists found disturbing trends among the healthcare workers who died due to COVID. The research revealed that more than one third of the healthcare workers who died were people of color, many were born outside of the United States, and nurses and support staff members died in far higher numbers than physicians. That this research came from journalists and not government entities is shocking.

The Guardian reported that initially, state and federal regulators were not diligent about tracking infection and mortality among health care workers, leaving journalists and private citizens to undertake that task. The publication elaborated: “The government had no comprehensive record of the frontline healthcare workers who died of Covid-19. As of 7 April 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 1,526 deaths among health workers — but the agency admitted that this was a likely undercount, and did not provide identifying data such as names. Other federal agencies maintained separate but incomplete lists of deaths, also lacking names.”

Long hours without support

What must be understood is that this research is indicative of deep pain. COVID-19 upended life as we know it, but it also ushered in a period of mass grief. In addition to having a likelihood of contracting COVID, many people also lost loved ones to the illness. And yet healthcare workers were not able to exhale; they worked long hours without the supports needed to sustain themselves. It should come as no surprise then that many were and are suffering.

“I was on the phone with a nurse who had just completed her shift, and drove home, but could not get out of her car,” Hagans added. “As she sat parked in her driveway, she cried on the phone as I did my best to assure her all would be well. Eventually, I called her husband, who was home at the time, and asked him to go outside and physically carry his wife inside.”

In a piece on the impact COVID-19 has had on nurses’ mental health, VOX cited a study that found that: “Female nurses in particular were at twice the risk of dying by suicide as women in the general population, according to research published earlier this year.”

In the wake of such devastation, healthcare workers need significantly more from the health systems that employs them. That they even must ask is mind-boggling. Now is the time for employers to provide every financial, emotional and psychological support system to healthcare workers long beleaguered by a relentless pandemic. To the extent they balk, local, state and federal governments must promptly intervene.

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