Author: Jane C. Feagin
“Global pandemic,” “COVID-19” and “mask” are all familiar terms that have become a part of our daily (and sometimes hourly) conversations with friends, family and colleagues. And, unfortunately, as COVID-19 cases increase and new restrictions are implemented in some areas, your staff may be feeling fear, stress, panic and anxiety.
Developing a strategy to adequately address these feelings in the healthcare space can be daunting. Long-term care nurses are managing the emotional wellbeing of residents along with their own personal troubles each day. Similarly, members of nursing facility staffs are under immense pressure, not to mention handling situations their profession has never experienced before.
Here are some of the signs of stress your senior living or long-term care staff may experience:
- Fear and worry about their own health and the health of their families is common, especially knowing they may be exposed and could bring this potentially deadly virus home.
- Financial concerns about possibly losing their health care jobs or experiencing a reduction in wages may be a concern. Additionally, they may even be feeling that they need to leave their jobs to protect themselves and their families.
- Changes in physical stamina may occur from dealing with the added physical demands of working longer hours and extra shifts. In addition, while wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) during their shifts is vital, it can be taxing on their bodies, uncomfortable and hot.
- Changes in health conditions can result from not being able to quiet their minds and get the much-needed rest their bodies need. The added stress of missing sleep can lead to acquired physical health conditions such as headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, memory and concentration issues, and heart disease.1
- Worsening of mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and even posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur. Day-to-day stress coupled with concerns about physical health can worsen mental health issues.
- Possible increase in use of tobacco and/or alcohol to relieve stress is common. These substances may actually keep the body in a stressed state as opposed to reducing stress, and can lead to many negative health issues.
If you or a member of your health care, senior living or LTC team is experiencing worsening mental health and/or substance use disorders, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) national help line at 1.800.662.4357.
Stress and staffing issues
Stress in long-term care facilities is continuing to build, and staffing concerns are at an all-time high. Facilities are experiencing a decrease in their workforce with no staffing pool to pull from and limited access to support from outside staffing agencies.
Before COVID-19, the senior living industry was already experiencing issues with recruiting and a shortage of long-term care workers. The pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. The limited pool of workers can be a result of:
- Candidates who are unavailable to work because they have contracted COVID-19 or are quarantined
- Regulations issues and/or protocols for staff/residents
- Employees who resign for fear of contracting COVID-19
- Employee burnout from increased hours
The current staff may be working additional hours/shifts to keep the residents cared for, and this can lead to burnout. Burnout is a state of mental or physical exhaustion caused by an unmanageable workload.
So how can management help retain the vital staff that keeps the facilities running smoothly?
- Provide long-term care staff an opportunity to take mental health breaks throughout their shifts, even if it is just five minutes to step away from work.
- Allow for safe, PPE-free zones that allow long-term care staff to remove their masks in a designated space, even in the parking lot.
- Be sure to exercise empathy. Empathy is defined as the social and emotional skill that helps us feel and understand the emotions, circumstances, intentions, thoughts and needs of others, so that we can offer sensitive, perceptive, and appropriate communication and support.2
Ways of expressing empathy
- Praise your senior living and long-term care staff for a job well done; don’t look for the negatives.
- Listen to your staff. Sometimes they just need to be able to verbalize their feelings, and talking with them is helpful.
- Remember that your staff members are someone’s special person: a parent, sibling, child, partner or friend.
- Use the “feel, felt, found” method of relating (e.g., “I understand how you feel; I’ve felt that way before myself, but here is what I found…”)
- Offer grief counseling for the staff that have lost residents who were special to them.
- Ask how you can help.
- Offer an employee assistance program (EAP). This is an employee benefit program that assists employees with personal and/or work-related problems that may impact their job performance, as well as their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
Sometimes a shared burden is better than carrying the load alone. Yes, that sounds rather cliché, but when your staff knows you care and want to help them, it can make all the difference.
There are no easy solutions to the current staffing situation for long-term care and senior living facilities, but we must acknowledge and take action to support employee wellbeing. Following are some helpful resources.
- Healthcare Wide Hazards: Stress (OSHA)
- Stress…At Work (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services)
- What Works Best to Prevent Stress Among Healthcare Workers: Changing the organization or educating staff? from CDC
- Coronavirus: Identifying and Easing Stress in Senior Living Residents (McKnight’s Senior Living)