The mental health of health workers during the COVID-19 pandemic
Health workers have played a critical role in controlling and managing the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting health emergency. Unfortunately, this has been associated with high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and other adverse effects.
For this reason, in early 2020, we launched the “COVID-19 HEalth caRe wOrkErS (HEROES) Study, a cohort study designed to shed light on the pandemic’s impact on health workers’ mental health in 12 countries in Latin America (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Uruguay) and countries in other regions of the world. The study included both front-line workers and staff in other areas of hospitals and primary care centers.
The preliminary results indicate an adverse impact on the mental health of these workers. For example, 25% reported feeling drained, with alterations in their sleep and appetite. With standardized instruments (for example, Patient Health Questionnaire-9), we found that 22% of the participants had a score indicating moderate to serious depression and around 7% had experienced suicidal ideation.
Some 35% responded that they needed psychological help, but only one third had received any, indicating inadequate coverage in the countries’ responses.
Our study also considered workplace risk factors to guide activities to protect health workers’ occupational health. For example, we found that: a) the mental health impact on people working in hospitals is similar to that of those working in other health settings; b) nearly half reported experiencing discrimination, and one quarter reported violence as a result of being a health worker, which in turn is associated with worse mental health outcomes; and c) around 85% have little confidence in their respective government’s handling of the pandemic.
Nonetheless, 90% of these workers have had the support of their family, and around 80% have also received support from their colleagues. In our study, family and workplace support are associated with better mental health indicators.
We believe it essential for countries to strengthen and coordinate centralized action with local action to ensure that health workers receive greater support in the workplace while providing direct care to those who need it.