Health care employees are confronted with a variety of
emotionally charged scenarios that can produce lasting
repercussions to their well-being. Organizations have typically
taken reactive, one-size-fits-all approaches to emotional support
that fail to differentiate between types of emotional suffering. And
they’ve relied on staff to build self-resilience and bounce back on
In the wake of Covid-19, this approach will no longer suffice.
Health care organizations must commit to providing targeted
baseline emotional support for the three types of emotionally
charged scenarios that health care employees are likely to
encounter in their careers: trauma and grief, moral distress, and
The conventional wisdom
There is no question that exposure to trauma and stress is part of working in
health care, particularly at the front line. Health care organizations have long
provided emotional support resources for staff, such as employee assistance
programs (EAPs) or debriefs following major emotional events.
But staff often don’t use these emotional supports. Either they aren’t the right
type of support needed in the moment, or staff think they don’t have time for
them. Frontline staff in particular often feel that they don’t have time for
emotional recovery because they prioritize patient needs over their
As a result, many health care workers rely on individual coping mechanisms.
This is what we call the “I’m fine” culture. If an emotional challenge arises, staff
manage it in the moment and then move on with their day.
This approach can be okay and is sometimes necessary in the short term. But
demanding work coupled with emotional distress takes a toll on people and
negatively impacts their well-being. In the United States, 38% of physicians
exhibit symptoms of high emotional exhaustion, and nurses exhibit symptoms of
PTSD at a rate four times higher than the general adult population.
Covid-19 is magnifying this challenge of emotional stress. A recent JAMA study
of 1,257 health care workers in China who treated Covid-19 patients reported
that 50.4% had symptoms of depression, 44.6% had symptoms of anxiety, and
34% had symptoms of insomnia. And it’s not just staff on the front lines. Other
staff members face new stressors that could impact their mental health, including
uncertain work environments, pay cuts, or job insecurity. And that’s all on top of
the general distress that the overall population is experiencing.