Dr. El

Much has changed in our lives and our facilities since my column two weeks ago on addressing residents’ coronavirus fears. Back then, residents, like the rest of us, were still receiving visitors and attending communal activities.

In addition to its effect on residents, COVID-19 has put enormous stress on those who work in long-term care. Staff members are dealing with a frightening and highly contagious illness, as well as with increased personal and professional demands and the need to employ strict biosecurity measures.

In addition, they may be facing a new feeling of disconnection from friends and family as they grapple with active and potential COVID-19 cases while others are focused on the challenges of self-isolation and financial insecurity. 

According to the American Psychological Association, research shows that “managing stress as soon as possible can prevent long-term troubles.”

Given that one of the biggest sources of anxiety is that facilities will run out of personal protective equipment (PPE), efforts to ensure that there is a sufficient supply of PPE are paramount. Other strategies to manage during this stressful period include:

Personal basics

These common suggestions bear repeating since those in the healthcare field frequently focus more on the needs of others. Remember, taking care of ourselves is taking care of them too. Whatever our role within our organizations, there are people observing how we’re reacting to this situation, as if we were flight attendants on turbulent planes. Paying attention to and addressing our own stress will make it less likely that we’ll “leak” our anxiety.

  • Self-monitor for stress: Along with self-monitoring for physical symptoms of the coronavirus, assess for emotional symptoms. Look for signs such as irritability, insomnia, fatigue, headaches and digestive problems. Be aware that it’s normal to be experiencing some manifestations of anxiety (such as restlessness and difficulty focusing) during this period of exceptional uncertainty. 
  • Practice self-care: Healthy activities can help maintain equilibrium in trying times. Exercise, eat healthy foods, maintain a sleep schedule, pray, dance in the living room. Headspace, the meditation app, is offering free access to healthcare professionals this year. Spread the word.
  • Stay personally connected: Despite social distancing and quarantines, we can stay in touch via telephone, FaceTime, Zoom meetings and other platforms. Set up group chats with friends and relatives to keep grounded in our personal lives and allay the concerns loved ones might feel about our work with a high-risk population. For example, I’m now in daily phone contact with my parents and I’ve been playing an online word game with my sister for both distraction and connection. 

Workplace strategies

  • Stay professionally connected: This is a good time to reach out to colleagues both within and outside our organizations whether by email, group chat, masked or from six feet away. This gives us the opportunity to share information, problem-solve and gain emotional support. I’ve been keeping in close contact with long-time local colleagues, my employer, the American Psychological Association and my peer group of Psychologists in Long-Term Care — and every bit of it helps.
  • Use team meetings and change-of-shift reports for staff support: Taking a few moments to acknowledge the efforts and emotional burdens of workers can help bolster flagging spirits. In Italy — currently on lockdown — people applauded the work of their healthcare providers from their windows and balconies. We can clap for each other at every change of shift, physically and metaphorically.
  • Monitor the stress levels of teammates: Keep an eye on coworkers for signs of excessive withdrawal, irritability, fatigue or worry. 
  • Encourage breaks: Despite, or perhaps because of, the extra pressures of working short-staffed during a time of crisis, we can support our colleagues to take lunch away from their desks and to take pauses throughout their shifts, especially when they’re showing signs of increased distress. The breaks may be shorter than usual due to the circumstances, but even a couple of uninterrupted minutes of quiet breathing in a private space can help.

Organizational strategies

  • Centralize communication: Regular, calm messages from your organization can help employees stay informed, feel supported and keep their composure. Consider using email or a password-protected section of your website to give updates, support and direction. 
  • Utilize mental health services: Remind workers that mental health specialists are available through their insurance or employee assistance program, and consider making arrangements for in-house support groups for staff. 
  • Enlist support from the larger community: Just as some national and regional restaurant chains have eliminated delivery fees, local businesses may be available to boost staff spirits with freebies or reduced rates. Neighbors might want to support their local nursing home workers by sewing face masks, decorating windows with encouraging phrases or any number of creative ideas. Head to the local on-line message board and ask them for help.

No one knows how long we’ll be grappling with COVID-19, but by working together and supporting each other, we will get through this. Join me for a March 31 (Tuesday) webinar on “Managing COVID-19 Anxiety in LTC” and, if you have additional strategies, please feel free to add them in the comments section below. 

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D., author of The Savvy Resident’s Guide, is an Award of Excellence winner in the Blog Content category of the APEX Awards for Publication Excellence program. She also is a Bronze Medalist for Best Blog in the American Society of Business Publication Editors national competition and a Gold Medalist in the Blog-How To/Tips/Service category in their Midwest Regional competition. To contact her for speaking engagements and/or content writing, visit her award-winning website at MyBetterNursingHome.com or her new website at EleanorFeldmanBarbera.com.