WRAL Investigates

Stress of working on pandemic front line could haunt health care providers later

Posted April 24, 2020 9:29 p.m. EDT

— Doctors and nurses at WakeMed and other hospitals are used to providing care, but now is a time many of them need both mental and physical care.

Studies estimate 15 to 20 percent of frontline health care workers already meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder – and that's even before the strain of fighting the coronavirus outbreak.

"It's almost like a wartime situation," said Dr. Clark Gaither, medical director for the North Carolina Professionals Health Program.

Gaither recently wrote about the impact of work overload, a lack of control over whether there will be enough masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment and the detachment from colleagues and family.

"If their symptoms of burnout are increasing, it can leave them bitter and angry and resentful," he said.

Job-related burnout in health care has been estimated at 50 to 70 percent.

"It's very traumatic. What's different about this trauma is that it's not a trauma that has a clear end," said Dr. Nadia Charguia, medical director of UNC Psychiatry Outpatient Services.

Charguia leads efforts to provide her team with counseling to cope with not only stress, but isolation from family and co-workers during the pandemic and the stay-at-home orders designed to limit the spread of the virus.

"Providers that typically work in teams together are separated from one another," she said. "A lot of those points of contact, points of connection, that automatically allow us to de-stress at times without even thinking are not available to us any longer."

Health care providers are good at helping but not always good at asking for help, Charguia said.

"Just be able to accept that right now. We're not looking for perfection. We're all in this state of chaos and turmoil," she said.

Hospital administrators say they are trying to keep an eye on the stress and fears of their staff. Time off usually helps with the healing process, but in a pandemic, it's all hands on deck, so vacation time isn't always an option.

That leads Gaither to question the long-term effect of having to meet the daily chaos and turmoil for an extended period.

"Once the pressure is let down, once it's relieved and we go back to some sort of normalcy, that's when the full impact of what's happened may weigh down on them," he said. "So, that's when we worry about increased depression, increased thoughts of suicide."

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