A new special report from Morning Consult explores how health care workers have fared during the pandemic and how they view the broader COVID-19 response. The data is drawn from a poll of 1,000 health care workers.
Health care workers are living the COVID-19 pandemic like no other group of people — and it’s taken a significant toll on their mental health.
Over the past year, as coronavirus infections surged and fell and surged again, as hospitals and morgues ran out of room, as protective equipment ran low and as the public discourse over masks and vaccines became increasingly political, health care workers slogged through it all. More than 3,200 of them have died of COVID-19, according to data compiled by Kaiser Health News and The Guardian.
Now, a new Morning Consult survey finds that 46 percent of health care professionals said their mental health has deteriorated during the pandemic, while the same share said their daily lives have gotten worse. Many others said there’s been no change; fewer than 1 in 5 health care workers said either their mental health or day-to-day lives have gotten better. The survey of 1,000 health care workers, 39 percent of whom have directly cared for COVID-19 patients, was conducted Jan. 4-9 and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
“The one big concern that everybody has is burnout and mental health,” said Dr. Mark Rosenberg, chair of emergency medicine at St. Joseph’s Health in Paterson, N.J., and president of the American College of Emergency Physicians. “‘I’m tired.’ ‘I don’t know how much more I can keep doing this.’ ‘I retired.’ These are the comments that I’m getting from people.”
The pandemic is affecting health care staff’s interactions with other people, too, the survey found. For most health care workers, their relationships with friends have either stayed the same (48 percent) or gotten worse (30 percent). When it came to their significant others and children, they were more likely to say their relationships have stayed the same (39 and 33 percent, respectively) or gotten better (26 and 23 percent.)
“I have a large group of younger docs who are just tired,” Rosenberg said. “They still have their kids, they still have all the stresses of being a mom, and their families are trying to put together schooling and all those different things.”
Some health systems are trying to ensure their employees weather the pandemic with support. In the early COVID-19 hot spot of Detroit, for example, the Henry Ford Health System launched emotional support groups, health programs and financial relief initiatives for its 30,000 employees who may need help during the pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even has a tip sheet for providers to help them “cope with stress and build resilience” during the pandemic.
Nationwide, many health care workers are struggling in other ways: 34 percent said their financial situation has gotten worse during the pandemic, and 36 percent said their career and work life has worsened, according to the survey. Thirty-one percent said their physical health has worsened, while 42 percent said their diet has declined during the pandemic.
“WE ARE BURNED OUT,” one health care worker wrote in the open-ended survey. “We cannot afford life on a good day let alone during a pandemic.”
In some instances, the financial burden on those charged with caring for the sick during the country’s worst health crisis in a century has been severe. In Hawaii, the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center, the state’s largest federally qualified health center, had to furlough about a third of its staff when the pandemic hit and patient visits — and revenue — dried up, and it was about five to six months before most staffers could be brought back to work, said Chief Executive Rich Bettini. Now, about 450 of 650 health center employees have gotten the COVID-19 vaccine, which “helps morale tremendously,” Bettini said.
The availability of vaccines, offering a path out of the relentless pandemic and its staggering burden on health care workers, has been a relief for many medical professionals.
“If the vaccine was not on the horizon, it would be very dark,” Rosenberg said.