Supporting frontline workers in challenging times

A one day seminar was due to take place tomorrow to support frontline workers. Although the conference has been postponed until November, organisers are still offering frontline staff a 'reflective space' to think about how they are coping
Supporting frontline workers in challenging times
Supporting frontline practitioners during Covid-19 pandemic, Dr Nicola O'Sullivan, Jim Sheehan and Dr Maeve Hurley. Picture: Darragh Kane.

NEVER before has the well-being of frontline health workers been so important as they work in extremely challenging circumstances, looking after people with coronavirus.

In response to this unprecedented situation, Dr Maeve Hurley, CEO of the charity, Ag Eisteacht, had planned a one-day seminar tomorrow, on May 21 to give frontline workers “reflective space” to think about how they’re coping. The seminar has been postponed now until November 26, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But On-line reflective spaces are being offered on May 21. This voluntary gesture, also involving Dr Nicola O'Sullivan, a social care and well-being specialist, and SHEP (Social Health Education Project), is a response to Covid-19. It is called the Heart of Frontline Practice.

As Maeve (a former GP) says, frontline health workers are human beings like everyone else.

“We tend to put them on pedestals because we need to see them as being competent. Often, our lives might be in their hands. So we need to be able to trust them. That can lead us to assume that they’re on top of everything in terms of their own health and mental health. I suppose, looking after our mental health is a challenge for all of us.”

Families of health care workers are attuned to their pressures. They can see firsthand that the health care worker in their family is worried about a patient or a colleague. When they come home from work, they try to work out ways of de-stressing. They need to ask themselves how are they doing, emotionally and physically and what supports they have in their lives.

“There are a lot of variables. We didn’t see something like Covid-19 coming into the mix. When you don’t see something coming, it can really catch you hard.”

As Maeve says, front line workers are under a lot of pressure with much expected of them.

“There’s so much at stake here. During the SARS epidemic, about 50% of healthcare workers experienced psychological distress. We don’t know what’s going on yet with health care workers as we haven’t had the time to ask them.”

Given that Covid-19 is much more widespread than SARS was, it can only be assumed that the majority of health care workers are feeling the strain.

“If you think of the kind of person that’s often drawn to the caring professions, they tend to have a high level of altruism. They really want to make a difference to the world by caring for people who are ill. Motivation keeps them going. Because they’re so caring, they often find it hard to say ‘no.’ If someone needs support, they give it. But it can lead to them becoming depleted themselves.”

Maeve says that even before the outbreak of coronavirus, she, Dr Nicola O’Sullivan and Jim Sheehan, director of SHEP, wanted to raise awareness of the perception and the reality of front line workers and how they can be supported.

“The title of our planned seminar is ‘Reconnecting with the Heart of Practice.’ This recognises that sometimes, it’s hard for people to stay connected with what drew them to the work in the first place. Stress and other factors can get in the way. Now, we’re going to do online reflective practice, opening the conversation by providing a space for people to see how they are in this time of huge upheaval. People are trying to manage the transition. There are so many balls up in the air.”

Maeve cites some members of families working from home. There can be disruption to childcare, financial worries and a lack of social connection. Health care workers “are having to go into work, sometimes for long hours. There’s a health risk involved in that. Then, they’re managing patients who might be very seriously ill. There’s the strain of losing some patients and then supporting and communicating with their families. They might be in PPE gear, trying to have a conversation with a patient. There’s also a sense of being on the alert because it’s such a critical time. It all takes a toll.

“Nicola talks about how the interaction of frontline workers’ inner lives with the work situation can be painful. It’s about acknowledging that and providing support for people.”

Psychologists, says Maeve, “have put a huge amount of systems in place in the HSE and the RCPI (Royal College of Physicians Ireland) has shown great leadership by setting up a department of health and wellbeing and appointing Professor Gaye Cunnane as its first director.

“We hear of amazing teams working well together and everybody across the system getting involved and putting their best foot forward. I think we have an opportunity to build on that, going forward. We have to think - how did this happen? How did we suddenly manage to get everybody focused in the same direction, wanting the same thing?”

The coronavirus pandemic is a chance “to reset the system, which is kind of happening. We can build (on what has been achieved.) So much of it is good.”

Is there anything that the public can take into account when dealing with frontline workers?

“I think appreciation is always helpful. It often motivates us to keep going. When saying ‘thank you,’ try and be specific about what it is you appreciate.”

Maeve adds that to support a family member who is a frontline worker, encourage them to keep up a healthy routine involving exercise and relaxation.

“If living with a frontline worker, be selective about the sources of news you listen to and the amount of news you consume.”

It’s all about putting yourself in their shoes.

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