Healthcare workers show signs of chronic stress after pandemic

Healthcare workers show signs of chronic stress after pandemic
Credit: Belga

With the pandemic now having dominated global affairs for 16 months, a large number of those working in healthcare are now showing signs of chronic stress, Sciensano warned on Thursday.

The virus has seriously impacted almost every aspect of civic life with populations the world over coming to terms with the restrictions imposed by authorities that have radically altered society as we knew it. For those on the front line in the fight against the coronavirus, the burden has been particularly great and a study conducted by the Institute of Public Health and Leuven Catholic University now reveals the extent of the strain on healthcare workers and carers.

Fatigue, lack of sleep, and finding it difficult to relax are just some of the symptoms reported in the recent study that surveyed the well-being of 951 healthcare professionals. 54% of those surveyed reported feeling 'strong to very strong' fatigue, whilst 45% reported feeling under intense pressure, and 39% found themselves unable to relax. This endemic malaise leads many to wish to quit their job, the Power to Care study found.

In a sector where daily tasks demand considerable mental composure, the results are concerning - especially the levels of sleep deprivation (36% of respondents) and trouble concentrating (31%). The findings paint a picture of healthcare personnel permanently on edge and echo previous surveys conducted by the same researchers in March 2021 and December 2020. The situation shows little sign of improvement.

Aside from the psychological stress reported, physical strain was also found to affect large proportions of healthcare workers - something that Sciensano deemed "extremely alarming". One-third of respondents told of muscular and joint pain, 29% reported headaches, and 17% told of stomach issues.

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The latest survey did find a slight reduction in levels of hypervigilance and anxiety to those recorded in previous studies, which researchers attribute to the vaccine rollout that has helped respondents feel more comfortable in their workplace. However, levels remain higher than levels in wider society and indicative of acute stress in the health sector.

The most recent results show a stark decline in overall morale when compared to those registered before the pandemic: 22% of respondents said they were considering leaving their jobs, a figure that was only 10% before the health crisis. One-fifth of those surveyed said they feel isolated, and barely half (53%) said they feel part of a team.

Indeed, the survey calls support systems within the profession into question, with only one-third of respondents sharing their concerns with colleagues and superiors despite the fact that 60% of those surveyed reported confiding their work-related anxiety to partners and family. Furthermore, half of the respondents said they needed more support from superiors and just one-third believed they received sufficient support.

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