By Dr Simon Grof – Consultant Geriatrician, Chief Medical Officer
Lockdowns may be a distant memory, but the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take its toll. With the impacts further exacerbated by a bumper influenza season, many residential aged care facilities - and our healthcare system more broadly - are feeling the strain.
Though the pandemic has certainly not been easy for anyone, it is the frontline workers in particular - the medical practitioners, health care workers and aged care staff – who continue to carry the heavy burden and emotional impacts of this public health crisis.
Pre-pandemic, levels of stress across the sector were already significant. In a ‘COVID - normal’ world, they are unfathomable. The daily stressors and challenges of the work have grown significantly. This is compounded not only by the physical burden - long hours, PPE, staff shortages, heavy and changing workloads - but the emotional impacts as well: of time away from loved ones; of supporting distressed elders, patients and families as they (and we) grapple with isolation, grief and loss; and of course, the ever-present risk of contracting COVID-19 ourselves.
Anyone in the health or caring profession knows that there are both rewards and challenges in this work - incredible joys coupled with despairing lows – and within the sector we have long known that the mental health toll for ourselves and our colleagues, including the disproportionate impact of suicide, is significant.
Prior to COVID, the research already showed that doctors report substantially higher rates of psychological distress and suicidal thoughts compared to the general Australian population (yet face additional stigma regarding the perceived performance of doctors with mental health conditions). The pandemic has thrown this into even sharper relief. Exhausted and burnt out as we enter our third year of COVID, nurses are leaving the profession in droves and the aged care sector continues to support our most vulnerable amidst the challenges of staff shortages and outbreaks.
Change is undoubtedly needed. One of the best ways to improve mental wellbeing for these invaluable professionals would be to address the structural inequities in how they are reimbursed and supported by government. However, the culture within which we work is also important – and here we all have a role to play in creating awareness and supporting change.
On Friday 3 June I was proud to support Crazy Socks 4 Docs. Now in its sixth year, the movement was first created by cardiologist Dr Geoff Toogood to address the stigma associated with mental health issues within the healthcare sector. Crazy Socks 4 Docs works to normalise conversations about wellbeing, while creating a safe place to work and seek help if needed.
Having recently joined Jewish Care’s Executive team as Chief Medical Officer, I have seen firsthand the organisation’s vision to ‘deliver excellent care and support, underpinned by Jewish values for the community we serve’. As well as supporting our elders and clients, this kind of values-based leadership also helps to create the safe and respectful workplaces that are vital for our frontline workers to thrive - and it is incumbent upon those of us in leadership roles to step forward.
As we celebrate Shavuot, we are reminded of what guides us - not only the ten commandments, which we received on this day, but also our intrinsic Jewish values: the principles and beliefs that unite us, back then at Sinai, and in our world today. One of the most central of these values is chessed: loving kindness. It is vital that we draw on the compassion that underpins our profession, and direct it not only towards our elders and patients, but to our colleagues and selves as well.
If you or someone you know is in need of support, please reach out. Call Lifeline (13 11 14), the Beyond Blue COVID Mental Wellbeing Service (1800 512 348) or the Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467). Visit handnhand.org.au for further information about free peer support for healthcare workers.