Protecting Our Protectors: How to Help Healthcare Workers
Frontline healthcare workers in the coronavirus era are regularly hailed as “heroes.” But long before the pandemic struck, many in the medical field—especially those not in positions of power in healthcare organizations—often felt undervalued, unappreciated, and overworked. A 2017 study found that clinical nurses can feel demoralized when they have limited authority on a care team, potentially leading to suboptimal patient outcomes. And unfortunately, this stress among many healthcare workers has only been heightened by a very visible public health crisis.
Why Healthcare Workers Need Our Support
While physicians and surgeons earn an average of $208,000 a year ($100 per hour) or more, healthcare workers who work in other patient care positions generally make more meager wages. Registered nurses earn a median salary of $73,300 ($35.24 per hour), home health and personal care aides come in at $25,800 ($12.15 per hour), and medical assistants earn $34,800 ($16.73 per hour). In fact, according to the Brookings Institute, “…nearly 20% of care workers live in poverty and more than 40% rely on some form of public assistance.”
Along with the low pay, these healthcare workers—while deemed “essential”—often feel expendable by doctors and other higher-up hospital staff. Staffing shortages mean most healthcare workers are working back-to-back shifts and often experience scheduling conflicts and abrupt changes.
Exhausting work, coping with death, and selflessly devoting themselves to patients can lead healthcare professionals to ignore their own well-being. Depression and burnout affect more physicians than in the general population, with medical students, resident physicians in training, and doctors having higher suicide rates.
Why Supporting Healthcare Workers Is Especially Critical During the COVID-19 Pandemic
In the pandemic, healthcare workers are not just putting their physical health at risk but also their emotional and mental health. Not only do we need to maintain the healthcare capacity from all the trained medical and patient care personnel we have, but we also have a collective obligation to ease the burden on the people dedicating themselves to healing others—particularly to reduce avoidable infections.
According to National Nurses United, as of September 2020, more than 1,700 healthcare workers in the U.S. have died from COVID-19. Globally, the death toll of health workers reaches more than 7,000. The risk of infecting themselves or their family members puts a greater strain on healthcare workers’ psychological well-being.
In New York, Dr. Lorna Breen died by suicide at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. Following her death, other medical workers’ suicides made the news as well. Yet the stigma of mental illness in the medical community prevents many healthcare professionals from seeking treatment. These stigmas often originate from healthcare workers perceiving themselves as the caretaker rather than the one needing care.
How Can You Help Healthcare Workers?
How can the public mitigate the challenges the healthcare community faces and offer their support? Below are a few coronavirus- and non-coronavirus-specific ideas on helping healthcare workers and expressing your gratitude for these real-life heroes.
Actions Communities Can Take
Some of these options can be undertaken during COVID if observing social distancing and mask-wearing expectations or even completed virtually. Others are best done in-person, so perhaps now is not the time to engage in them—but they’re something to keep in mind for the future.
Host blood and bone marrow matching drives.
Schools and businesses host blood donation and bone marrow matching drives, but you can extend this initiative to other communities you are a part of. Consider organizing a drive in your neighborhood, in your social circle, or with a club you’re a member of.
Set up fundraisers.
You can also run fundraisers to support your local hospital or healthcare provider or for causes like medical research and the development of cures and vaccines.
Advocate for effective policies.
Certain legislation impacts healthcare professionals. Consider researching, advocating for, and abiding by policies that affect healthcare workers’ livelihoods and rights—paying special attention to the ones healthcare workers generally support. National Nurses United, the nation’s largest nursing union, provides a list of acts and bills they support, which may help guide you. You can work with local businesses or your neighborhood to support these policies.
Organize your hobby group.
Hobby groups can use their skills to provide physical donations to hospital patients. Be sure to check with the medical facility first before donating to ensure they actually need the items. While these donations directly help patients, they also take significant pressure off healthcare workers in providing a comfortable and cheerful atmosphere. A couple of examples of what hobby groups can do include:
- If you are a part of a sewing or knitting group, you can donate incubator covers for hospital nurseries and hats, gloves, and socks for infants and chemotherapy patients, or blankets for children.
- If you are involved in a musical or theater group, consider performing for patients. Of course, be mindful of the content you perform. Songs like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” can come across as insensitive.
What Communities Can Do During the COVID-19 Pandemic
In addition to the above ideas—like hosting blood drives and launching fundraisers for COVID-19 equipment and treatments—communities can also do the following.
Make masks with your community.
If a group you’re involved with has people who can sew—or people who are willing to shop for sewing supplies—you can make masks for those who can’t afford them or whose mask supply is running thin.
Help enforce mask mandates and social distancing guidelines.
Help ensure you and others are following the rules and staying safe. If you have the means, give masks to those who don’t have any. Talk to store management if you notice an issue, and call the appropriate state or county hotlines to make reports if need be.
What Business Owners Can Do to Help Healthcare Workers
Host drives and fundraisers.
As mentioned in the community section above, businesses can host blood and bone marrow drives and organize fundraisers to benefit healthcare providers.
Donate a portion of your proceeds to healthcare-related causes.
Offer staff a free paid day off to volunteer. Include volunteering at medical facilities and organizations in your suggestions for employees. Alternatively, you could dedicate one day of the year to volunteering with your staff to boost morale and promote teambuilding.
What Business Owners Can Do During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Offer discounts and freebies.
Supermarkets and restaurants can provide free delivery to medical professionals. Clothing stores and daycare facilities can offer discounts to healthcare workers. And electricians, plumbers, and other repair professionals can consider not charging extra for working on the weekends or evenings for healthcare worker clients.
Frequently clean, ventilate, and disinfect your place of business, and of course, wash your hands regularly.
Enforce mask and social distancing regulations.
Require that employees and customers wear face masks. Practice social distancing and send staff home if they feel ill.
What Individuals Can Do to Help Health Workers
Volunteer your time at your local hospital, hospice, or medical clinic.
- Hospitals often need volunteers to drive terminally ill and chemotherapy patients to their appointments, run errands, stay with them in the radiation recovery room, or simply have conversations with them.
- Hospices may need volunteers to prepare meals or plan activities for patients.
- Hospitals and clinics may want volunteers who can organize patient information and conduct data entry.
- You can also volunteer at nonprofits promoting health education. In this role, you may be designing educational materials and programs.
Donate physical donations like handmade items or medical supplies. Donate blood or apply to be a bone marrow donor—it takes a simple cheek swab to get on the list, and you can do this at home. Donate to organizations supporting medical research and providing the necessary equipment for healthcare providers.
Research legislation and candidates’ positions before voting. You can do this by visiting nonpartisan websites to learn about candidates’ stances on healthcare issues, watching media coverage and town hall events, listening to debates and speeches, visiting campaign websites, and looking out for endorsements from organizations and individuals.
Understand where to seek medical attention.
By knowing which medical facility—general practitioner’s office, urgent care, or the emergency room—to go to for your own medical care, you avoid overloading the emergency department. Not everything is an emergency.
Learn first aid.
Learn to provide basic first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). You can lessen a patient’s injuries before they reach a hospital by providing immediate medical assistance.
Make sure emergency medical services (EMS) can perform their jobs.
Stay out of the way during an emergency situation so first responders can assist the patient in need.
How Individuals Can Help Healthcare Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Donate personal protective equipment (PPE) during this critical time. Donate blood if you are healthy. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the American Red Cross encourage the public to donate blood amid the pandemic to prevent a blood shortage later on.
Wear a mask.
PPE is in high demand but low in stock. Instead of purchasing an N95 mask, wear a fabric face covering so healthcare professionals can have the supplies they need.
Clean and disinfect surfaces daily. Wash your hands frequently and use hand sanitizer if you don’t have access to soap and water. Don’t touch your nose, eyes, and mouth with unwashed hands. Sneeze or cough into your elbow.
Do your part and stay at home as often as possible. Avoid large gatherings and close contact with others.
Call before seeing the doctor.
If you need medical attention, call the primary care office or urgent care clinic before going in. This way, the clinic can prepare for any potential COVID-19 exposure. Many healthcare providers are offering telemedicine appointments to reduce exposure. Your visit may be better done through a video chat or over the phone than in a clinic.
Offer childcare or to run errands.
Long shifts at odd hours mean that some healthcare workers don’t always have the time to get groceries and may be scrambling to find someone to babysit. If you know a healthcare worker in your neighborhood, offer to pick up their groceries or take care of their children.
Buy a meal.
Healthcare workers’ schedules are often so crazed that taking the time to grab food might feel like a luxury rather than a necessity. The pandemic has made their shifts even busier, so consider buying dinner for a hospital employee. Plenty of organizations across the country are allowing customers to send coffee, snacks, or full dinners to essential workers.
Express support on social media.
Express your gratitude for healthcare workers online with a thoughtful social media post. Consider tagging your local hospital or including relevant hashtags so they see the message.
How Healthcare Administrators Can Support Employees
Healthcare employees put their lives and their families’ lives on the line every day. Their health and safety are even more critical now because of the coronavirus outbreak, but they need your support in general as well. Healthcare administrators can lend support to staff in a variety of ways:
Provide mental health support.
Lower the stigma associated with mental illness by allowing your staff to express their emotions. Healthcare leaders should regularly check in with employees and share resources for mental health assistance. Be sure to remind the staff that you won’t know if they utilize mental health services. Dealing with illness and death, isolating from their families, and experiencing heightened anxiety over potential COVID-19 infection may deplete medical professionals’ mental health.
Help employees manage their stress by encouraging breaks and providing healthy food. Medical facilities can offer meditation classes or nap rooms to help employees rest and rejuvenate.
Be mindful of scheduling and allow paid leave.
Allow staff to have more control over their work schedules, perhaps with flexible scheduling arrangements and fewer 12-hour shifts. Provide employees with paid time off and be aware of current laws surrounding the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Lift hiring freezes.
Though it’s easier said than done, if you’re able to lift any hiring freezes to help with staffing shortages, employee burnout can be decreased and higher productivity and retention rates can result.
Have a reward system for self-care.
This could be handing out pedometers so employees can track their steps or rewarding workers for choosing a healthy meal during their shifts. Ask your staff what kind of rewards would be relevant and useful for them. Cash might not be as great of an incentive as paid time off.
Keep communication brief.
Don’t overwhelm employees with long, drawn-out emails, meetings, or lists of instructions. Make written materials easily scannable, clear, and to the point.
Offer childcare and housing.
Partner with organizations like Airbnb and hotels to offer staff safe quarantine options if needed. Have onsite childcare available so workers can have one less thing to worry about.
Listen to the staff’s needs.
Accommodate their requests when it comes to testing and seeking medical treatment. Keep staff in the loop over efforts to obtain more PPE and how to properly use supplies.
Healthcare Workers Helping Each Other and Themselves
The body and mind are interconnected, which means stress affects both your mental and physical health. Stress can weaken your immune system—a dangerous outcome when working in healthcare. Below are a few ways to mitigate stress and take of yourself and your co-workers.
This doesn’t have to be a tranquil spa day complete with essential oils and a restorative yoga session—though it can be. Even just kicking back on your couch binge-watching bad reality TV can count as self-care. Phone a friend. Cuddle with your cat. Journal your thoughts. Grab an adult coloring book, and don’t worry about coloring in the lines.
Pay attention to your body.
Healthcare professionals tend to prioritize others’ needs over their own. Instead, notice how you feel. Are you always tired? Unable to focus? Giving yourself time to rest may help make you a better caregiver.
Seek mental health support.
Get mental health treatment if you feel overwhelmed or not. Prevention is key in helping manage your stress. You can find support through your employer if it’s offered or through online services like BetterHelp and Talkspace.
Maintain your support network.
Stay in contact with friends and family, even if this has to be done virtually. Social interaction is incredibly important in reminding us we are loved and not alone.
Make sure no one feels like an island. Sincerely ask how your co-workers are doing and engage them in conversation. Offer a listening ear if they need to vent and follow up with how each other is doing.
- Pay attention to nonverbal cues like avoiding eye contact or remaining distant during conversations. Reach out to these individuals who may be struggling more than others. If you don’t feel comfortable, then talk to their supervisor. No one should have to suffer alone.
Work as a team.
Be responsible for each other’s self-care. Make sure your colleagues are taking breaks, using the restroom, eating and hydrating frequently, and staying in touch with loved ones. If you work part-time, perhaps offer to deliver groceries or babysit for full-time employees. Openly discuss coping and self-care strategies together. Doing so may help motivate each other to relax and decompress.
Resources for Supporting Healthcare Workers
10 Ways to Show Your Appreciation During Nursing Assistants Week
Nursing Assistants Week occurs in June. The week allows people to show some love for those who help doctors and nurses give the best care. This article gives ideas about how to participate in this event.
This resource allows healthcare workers to receive immediate mental health support. It was created by Penn Medicine and UnitedHealth Group and includes “curated mental health and wellness content, live groups, and individual virtual support.” Though as of May 2020 it’s only available to Penn employees, they’re working on making this broader—and you can currently join anonymously.
Support for Healthcare Workers
From the psychiatry department at the University of Wisconsin, this piece provides further tips and resources for those working in healthcare regarding maintaining their mental health. You can also find information about how to best communicate with families about COVID, providing patient care during this time, and more.
Resources to Support the Health and Well-Being of Clinicians During the COVID-19 Outbreak
This list of resources is here for healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those in management may find this particularly helpful.