For the majority of the population, the coronavirus pandemic has been heavy. A recent survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that the number of adults in Britain with depression has doubled since March, and isolation has been an incredibly stressful time for many. With over 350,000 reported cases (and counting), many people know someone affected by coronavirus - and that number is only set to rise.
The shining light for many over the past few months has been the incredible jobs our key workers have done during the pandemic. Clap For Carers reminded us every week of the people who - quite literally - put their lives on the line to keep us safe, and gave the public immense respect for those still at work while we were able to remain in the relative safety of our homes.
But what about the effects working through a pandemic had on key workers’ mental health? Particularly those working for the NHS, who were not only exposing themselves to the disease every day, but also seeing first-hand the repercussions left by COVID.
Poorni, a 29-year-old doctor for Marie Curie, found the extreme change to her work so difficult that it left her anxious and unable to sleep.
“My mental health was very critical at the start of the pandemic,” she tells Cosmopolitan. “It was not knowing how long it was going to go on for, knowing the impact it would have on our personal lives. I was trying to balance knowing that I was at work and providing a service with looking after my family, and not wanting to do anything that would put them at risk.”
And of course, coronavirus meant her daily work was different to anything else she’d experienced. “Working in the hospice meant we had to change the way that we’d normally work,” she explained. “When you deal with death and dying on a regular basis it can be very challenging, and part of the care we provide is support for family and friends.
"The thing that I struggled with was being told that, because of COVID, we were not allowed to have any visitors in the hospice. Friends and and family were no longer allowed to visit. The day we were told that was one I will never forget. I’m not someone who cries at work, but I couldn’t stop myself.
“I remember going with one of my bosses to have a conversation with the patients, and seeing the look in their eyes. We weren’t able to provide the care we normally are able to.”
The feelings of guilt mixed with anxiety left Poorni unsure about herself at work, and before long it started to affect life outside of it.
“I would go home everyday and ask, ‘Have I done enough? Am I doing enough to make sure the patients I’m looking after are dying peacefully? Have I done enough to console family members that want nothing more than to be by their side but can’t be?’” she says. “There was a lot of guilt I think, as I was able to come into the hospice day-in, day-out, and I knew that relatives on the outside would have given anything to spend those final moments with their loved-ones.
“That definitely stayed with me, to the point where I started to find that my sleep became really affected. I was waking up in the early hours and replaying conversations that I'd had, all of that self-doubt, questioning whether I was doing enough, whether I was good enough. It really did take a toll on me mentally.”
“I remember it was getting to a point where I'd had a couple of weeks of disturbed sleep. The workload was normal, but everything was making me want to cry. Even smaller things that I would do normally in my job, like writing a drug chart, I found myself on the verge of tears. That was the day that I told my colleague I needed help, and I signed on to do counselling sessions.
“I’ve always been reluctant as I thought I’d always been so open and communicative of how I’m feeling, but it got to the point where I had reached a mental barrier. And even offloading to my colleagues wasn’t providing me with what I needed. Counselling really has transformed my life - even though I wasn’t saying anything that I hadn’t already said to other people, I found it so helpful.”
Therapy, along with yoga - Poorni’s go-to stress reliever - or other exercise classes first thing in the morning, is what she credits for keeping her mental health on track over the past few months. However, with extremely busy jobs and more responsibility than ever before, Poorni worries that not everyone in the care sector will prioritise their needs when necessary.
“How a lot of doctors and nurses cope is - you just get on with your day," she explains. "It’s a stressful job from day one, but I think lots of medics were - or are - very scared to tap into our own emotions, because we feel that being emotionally detached, or not accessing that part of ourselves, will make us more effective at doing our jobs.
“It’s so important to look after yourself and I think self-care for healthcare professionals isn’t as big a thing as it should be."
Looking back, Poorni is trying to focus on the positives of how the “new normal” changed her way of working.
“As doctors and nurses we all looked into how we would provide the best care for patients when family and friends weren’t allowed to come in, and we all made the conscious decision that when someone was in the final stages of their illness, we would take it in turns to sit in with them and hold their hands, and try to provide them with final words of comfort,” she says. “That completely opened my eyes, and I think I was incredibly privileged to be able to do that. That would be something that I’ve taken from it that’s affected my practice for the better. It was incredibly rewarding. It’s made me think about my role as a doctor in a different sense."
Tips for healthcare professionals struggling with mental health
Marie Curie has been encouraging staff to make time for their mental health through various practises. Claire Collins from the hospice shares her tips for self-care in high-stress roles:
Acknowledge to yourself that your job can be tough at times
Stop often, perhaps between patients, for a ‘mindful pause’
Have breaks away from the job
Don't allow the pressure to take over
As you end your shift, have a ritual for leaving work behind
The information in this story is accurate as of the publication date. While we are attempting to keep our content as up-to-date as possible, the situation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic continues to develop rapidly, so it's possible that some information and recommendations may have changed since publishing. For any concerns and latest advice, visit the World Health Organisation. If you're in the UK, the National Health Service can also provide useful information and support, while US users can contact the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
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