Essential and frontline workers are those who provide essential services or key public services including healthcare, social service, journalism, justice system, government services, food production, distribution supply chain, public safety, national security, transport systems, utilities, communication, key financial services, etc. During these challenging times of Covid-19 pandemic, theyare suffering various kinds of anxieties, stress, depression,sleep disorders, uncertainties, prolonged separation from their loved ones, etc.
As time passes by, these traumatic experiences are most likely to reflect on their psychological state, probably in more ways than one. Exposure to prolonged excessive stress can also cause harmful effects on emotional, physical as well as socialwell-being of the frontline workers who are going through unprecedented level of work pressure during this pandemic.
The immensity of stressis such that it can easily lead to exhaustion, burnout, mental disorder, substance use disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),and even suicidal thought or attempt. Eventually this may translate into reduced quality of service, low productivity, non-compliance with required guidelines, increased risk of infection, mistakes, accidents, and compromised emergency response capacity, etc. in the healthcare as well as other essential public service sectors.
The situation is dire out there and we are certainly living through vulnerable time. Recent studies conducted among health care workers showed that 74% suffered stress, 41% reported anxiety, 34% had symptoms of insomnia, and 24% felt depressed. Another survey carried out among nurses revealed that a whopping 38% were working with high level of stress. It is likely that a big chunk of the sufferers may develop PTSD resulting in long-term impact on their mentalhealth, emotional wellbeing, career decisions, personal relationships, social skills, etc.
Acknowledging the emotional part of dealing with this pandemic is a huge stepping stone towards managing work stress of the frontline workers. It is important to formalize the fact that we are all experiencing some level of anxiety, loneliness and isolation at our workplaces. Therefore, the first logical step is to face the tragedy head-on and bring the topics directly on the work floor of the healthcare and essential service providing institutions. Normalizing these feelings and experiences within the organization helps employees feel comfortable in sharing their feelings. Moreover, if the top leadership is open and supportive as well, it helps create a culture that can address mental health issuesof essential and frontline workers more favorably.
Work-related stress originates when workers are presented with work overload, demands and pressures that are beyond their capacity and which challenge their ability to cope with the situation. Stress occurs in a variety of work circumstances but is often made worse when employees feel they have limited resources, little control over work processes and even less support from supervisors and colleagues they work with.
All concerned parties must sincerely acknowledge the fact that the work-related stress due to Covid-19 is for real and it is severely affecting mental health of our frontline workers. The demanding work environment is putting their physical as well as psychological health at risk every day. Under the circumstances, relevant authorities, governing bodies and the responsible management teams must put extra efforts to provide these tireless angels a work environment that should feel safe and free from negativities, such as violence, discrimination, insecurities, harassment, isolation, etc. at the least.
The management teammay ask the frontline workers totake appropriate actions to deal with the risk of infection, at the same timecope with the work-related stress. It may also advise them tooffer each other personal and professional support which in turn improves their collective performance, personal relations and job satisfaction. Workers may be urged to keep calm and stay mentally or emotionally strong. These behaviors are necessary but, let’s be honest, are they helpful enough to maintainemotional and mental wellbeing of the essential workers?It would be really unfortunate if the organizations limited themselves to such simplistic solution which is easier said than done.
During difficult times like these,employees’ change in attitude (helpful behaviors as mentioned earlier) may come rather naturally,at least initially; however, it may gradually fade away and the employees may not behave the same over the time. Therefore, thisbehavioral change needs to be reinforced and most importantly integrated into the culture of the organization itself. Such efforts to change or tweak the organizational culture will be successful and sustainable only when employers, top level management and responsible health administrators take the initiative seriously.
A positive health and safety culture cannot be achieved overnight, but it is clear that the change starts at the top and then followsa top-down approach. Organizations could start by establishing that their essential and frontline workers’ emotional and mental wellbeing sits at the top of their corporate business criteria. People at the leadership positions must be sensitive enough to understand and feel the emotional challenges, psychological pain, and physical/mental exertion arising from the work that the frontline workers do so relentlessly.Employers must be aware of the immediate needs (problems, priorities, work overload stress and even personal issues if any) of their staff and must provide with proper care, safety and support. All the staffshould be highly encouraged and arranged to have conversations and consultations in a one-on-one settings because empathy and assurance from the authority/manager can go a long way.
These leaders, managers, administrators and supervisors of relevant organizations must also understand that their frontline workers’ emotional and mental wellbeing will have direct impact on the valuable services they provide so selflessly and which the entire country depends on so desperately. Our hearts go out to all the frontlinerswho are putting their lives on the line and battling this pandemic on our behalf. These are tough times and the least we can do is support and motivate our heroes to fight this nightmare; we fight, we endure and yes, collectively we shall overcome this.