Excerpts from “The Experiences of Health Workers in the COVID-19 Pandemic – In Their Own Words” – Prof Marie Bismarck and Colleagues

Posted on:March 14, 2022
Last Updated: March 14, 2022
Time to read: 3 minutes

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across Australia, a group of clinicians and researchers came together to understand the impact on healthcare workers through an online survey: “The Frontline Healthcare Workers Study.”

The survey mostly collected quantitative data – demographics, depression scales, burnout inventories, and the like. But tucked away at the very end was a survey question that is rarely answered:

Is there anything else you want to tell us?

Much to the researchers’ surprise, nearly 10,000 healthcare workers answered the survey, and between them, they wrote nearly 250,000 words of raw and heartfelt free text, sharing their personal experiences of the pandemic.

These stories form the basis of a new book by Professor Marie Bismark and colleagues: “The experiences of health workers during the COVID-19 pandemic: In their own words”. The book explores the social, psychological, and occupational factors that challenged and sustained healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, as told in their own words.

Worryingly, the authors found that one in ten healthcare workers experienced thoughts of suicide or self-harm over a two week period during the pandemic. Yet among those with thoughts of suicide or self-harm, fewer than half sought professional help. [Bismark et al., 2022]

This book extract below sheds some light on the ongoing hesitation among healthcare workers to seek mental health care.

During the pandemic, only a minority of healthcare workers accessed professional services for emotional wellbeing or mental health distress.

As healthcare workers, we are often very bad at looking after ourselves. Ironic. (Respiratory scientist, male, age 51– 64)

One reason was an entrenched culture of suffering in silence.

Most health professionals try to intellectualise problems and cope and feel guilty about asking for help. There needs to be a cultural shift in medicine, and not just because of the pandemic. (Senior doctor, medical specialty, female, age 31– 40)

There is still stigma and guilt around mental health, especially in country areas where it is seen as a weakness and letting the team down. The supports are in place, but, although I have sought help, I don’t openly talk about it. I use a physical aliment to cover for my mental health issues. (Nurse, perioperative care, female, age 41– 50)

Some healthcare workers experienced invalidating responses from colleagues if they shared their struggles.

If I tried to speak up, I was told that “other people have also had to suffer” and to “get on with it”. I am very happy to work hard and pride myself on it actually, but there was no space to speak up and say it has been a struggle. (Junior doctor, intensive care, female, age 31– 40)

You had to adapt regardless of how you were feeling. If you said you “needed a minute” to have a breath because you were feeling overcome with anxiety, you were told to “suck it up”. (Nurse, medical specialty, female, age 20– 30)

Reluctance to seek support was also linked to fears about privacy and confidentiality.

I would like to seek some brief psychological help, but I have been working in my local area for so long, it’s hard to find somebody who does not know me. (General practitioner, female, age 65– 70)

Others found it difficult to find the time and energy to access services.

My colleagues and I are emotionally drained. While I know there are supports in place, people seem too tired to reach out for help. (Nurse, general medicine, female, age 31– 40)

There is actually so much stuff about well-being crossing my desk. I don’t read it. So, it’s not that I don’t know the opportunity is there, I just can’t muster the energy to do yet more things! (Senior doctor, palliative care, female, age 41– 50)

Want to read the book? 

Experiences of Health Workers in the COVID-19 Pandemic In Their Own Words is available from Routledge. Readers can use FLE22 for 20% off.

Other articles on Covid and Mental Health: 

  1. COVID-19 and the Brain – Pathogenesis and Neuropsychiatric Manifestations of COVID-19
  2. Mental health challenges for healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic – Psychological Impact and management strategies