Long-term care providers reported stress approaching severe levels even as the pandemic’s death march waned, according to early analysis of a survey that included nearly 1,200 healthcare and senior care workers.

Rehab therapists and activities staff reported the highest stress levels, citing potential job loss and being tasked with more nurse-like responsibilities as they aimed to fill gaps in care. They were followed by nursing professionals, who remained fearful of contracting COVID-19 or bringing it home to their families.

Now, survey leaders have launched a nationwide pilot to determine how well short bursts of physical exercise, brain exercises and meditation lessen psychological burden  — and whether employer-supported programs can improve retention at a critical time.

William Mansbach, Ph.D.

“It’s not our mindset to find an immediate cure,” said William E. Mansbach, Ph.D., a psychologist affiliated with the independent BCAT Research Center, which conducted the survey. “It’s to delay onset. We’re trying to quantify (the stress) to try to make an economic case for reducing it.”

Mansbach shared the results with McKnight’s Long-Term Care News this week.

He hopes to enroll 10 facilities nationwide in the “15 Minutes for Me” pilot, which has already begun in four locations in the East and West coasts. Over four weeks, participants are asked to complete physical exercises, specific working memory exercises from a handbook, and a series of breathing and meditation exercises.

Employers give workers time during their shift to complete all segments on site. Employees complete self-assessments before and after the intervention, with the goal being to lower stress over time. Ideally, that will help prevent burnout and keep them reporting for work longer.

Like workers in the national study, pilot participants use the M5, a peer-reviewed tool that measures mood functioning in about one minute. On a scale of 1 to 10, those who score 0 to 2 have low psychological burden; those scoring 3 to 5 are experiencing mild-to-moderate stress; and anything higher indicates severe stress.

Workers in a bind

Mansbach called scores in the 5s for large groups “alarming,” adding that sustained stress of any amount increases risk of developing clinical mental illness.

In February, long-term care workers reported an overall average burden of 5.1, a significant increase over levels in the high 3s in surveys taken in the spring and fall of 2020.

With respondents from all 50 states — 900 of them post-acute care workers — this was BCAT’s third and most comprehensive pandemic survey.

Rehab therapists across occupational, speech and physical specialities reported a stress burden of 5.6, followed case managers at 4.6, nursing staff at 4.5, behavioral health and social services staff at 3.6 and non-patient-facing or administrative workers at 3.2.

When it came to average burden, there was no significant difference between workers in nursing homes, senior living or home care settings.

Mansbach predicts stress will continue to mount over the next few months as employees “come up for air” and begin to process what they’ve  lived through. He formulated the idea for 15 Minutes for Me based on interest he received from LeadingAge members.

He said it’s ease and length might be an advantage when long-term care providers feel more squeezed for time and resources than ever before.

“You don’t have to do it for an hour a day. An employer can give 15 minutes, but they’re not going to give an hour,” he said.

The pilot is free for participants, though Mansbach estimates a facility could expect to pay about $1,200 for an established program.