The coronavirus pandemic has been truly exhausting for us all, but one group in particular seems to be facing the worst the pandemic has to offer without receiving much of the support and recognition that they truly deserve: long-term care staff. They have dutifully suffered in silence, but their emotional and mental health is at risk and needs to be tended to and addressed.
Employees of long-term care facilities have faced the true horrors of this global pandemic. Combatting outbreaks among their patients, many of whom are among the most vulnerable and at-risk from the virus, confronting death on a scale they likely haven’t seen before and being exposed and contracting the virus themselves is something that can hardly be said was traditionally expected of them.
And now, almost a year later, the virus rages on. Yes, there have been improvements. Many experts seem to indicate that an end is in sight, but we are not there yet.
As the months drag on and the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic persist, it is going to become increasingly critical for long-term care managers to focus on the mental well-being of their staff members. The recently coined term “pandemic fatigue” is real. The stresses and sadness of these past months will have a lasting mental health impact, even if they are going unseen for now amid continued and persistent brutality.
Another factor to consider is that, if and when we begin to turn the corner on this pandemic, the nature of long-term care facilities with hundreds of elderly and at-risk individuals housed together means risk may remain. Even after much of the world begins to resume normal operations, caretakers and other staff will be required to remain on guard.
While restrictions around the world may ease, a single infection in a long-term care facility can completely reset all the progress a community has made. And the prolonged pressure can be wearing.
Resources should be put in place to check on and tend to your staff’s mental health. Many employees feel that, during work, they need to remain strong, maintain their composure and absorb the challenges internally. At home, their experiences may seem out of place, startling and not appropriate to share with their loved ones who are likely experiencing stress and anxiety of their own. With no outlet to express their emotions and no forum to share their troubles, the burden just continues to grow.
Facilities need to establish services and protocols to help their staff manage the emotions and grief they experience during the pandemic. Holding an in-service to educate staff on how to process and cope with bereavement will be an important part of the healing process once the pandemic is behind us.
In addition, facilities can establish small workshop groups to discuss the toll of the pandemic among other employees who share challenges. This can help staff realize their experiences and emotions are not necessarily unique to them, but normal, expected and treatable. These groups can provide an outlet for staff to express emotions in a safe and open environment. This allows them to analyze and process feelings without the fear of judgment or the guilt of burdening others.
We need to provide resources for our staff to talk about their experiences and share what they are going through. It is not healthy for them to harbor all these feelings for months and months simply because they don’t know where to go with it. It is on us to provide them with that outlet, to encourage open dialogue and to build a support system and resources for recovery so that our staff, just like our residents, can stay happy and healthy and thrive.
Debbie Barish, L.C.S.W, is a social work consultant for Dry Harbor Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Middle Village, NY.