Understanding the pandemic's impact on frontline workers

Annual Report 2019-20

Dr. Rima Styra is applying lessons from SARS as she explores how the pandemic is affecting healthcare workers, and how to better support them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed significant challenges for our whole community, and frontline healthcare workers have been among those bearing the brunt of its impact. Facing an emerging pathogen with no known effective treatment, shortages of PPE, and significant mortality rates, all while exposing themselves to the risk of infection, care providers were subjected to a high level of stress and potential trauma.

Dr. Rima Styra is well acquainted with the psychological impacts of emerging pathogens. During SARS, sheand her colleagues studied the disease’s effects on healthcare providers. They found that these workers experienced elevated levels of mental distress. This experience with SARS provided Dr. Styra and her team with valuable lessons; however, the sheer scale of COVID-19 still surprised them.

“We learned several valuable lessons from SARS, but many of us did not anticipate the extensive impact that COVID-19 would have on our healthcare, economic and social networks,” says Dr. Styra. “SARS was mainly a hospital-based infection whereas COVID-19 involves extensive community spread. The impact of COVID-19 has been unprecedented.”

As healthcare workers in China reported symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress, the team adapted a survey they’d created during the SARS crisis to measure mental health impacts on Canadian providers. Using online platforms they performed a multi-hospital study, with 3,000 health care workers taking part. Dr. Styra and her team are currently analyzing their findings, but early results indicate an increase in mental illness similar to what was seen in China.

But there is a silver lining. The pandemic has led to the creation of numerous mental health support tools that have the potential to improve the wellness of healthcare providers  long after the pandemic is over.

“Compared to the SARS era, the number of mental health resources that were made available to healthcare providers as soon as the pandemic started was a tribute to the drive of our communities to assist their colleagues,” says Dr Styra, “The mental health community has responded to the needs of their colleagues with programs that are convenient, easy to access, and readily available.”

“The pandemic has catapulted the development of mental health programs forward, progress that can be expanded upon in the post-pandemic era.”

These programs offer benefits beyond the mental health of individuals. Maintaining healthcare systems during a pandemic requires a healthy and engaged workforce, which can cope with their own fears and the increased demands in the workplace and at home.

Dr. Styra’s research provides an opportunity to hear from frontline healthcare providers directly and learn how to best support their needs. The results of her study will guide hospital leadership, professional organizations, and governments, enabling them to respond in ways that genuinely support the mental health of healthcare workers during the pandemic and beyond.