Healthcare Workers Experience Psychological Distress During Pandemic



A “Heroes Work Here” sign sits on the front lawn of University Medical Center in New Orleans. During the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare workers appeared unstoppable, but their kryptonite was stress and exhaustion from overworking, according to healthcare workers.

Erin Haynes, Assistant Life and Times Editor

As COVID-19 victims continue to overwhelm healthcare facilities, workers experience psychological distress from limited self-care, short staffing, lack of equipment, and overwhelming work shifts. 


“The conditions of other healthcare workers is keeping me up at night with everything I see on television,” said Kim Ernst, who is an inactive registered nurse, and a psychologist professor at Loyola University New Orleans. 


Ernst hasn’t been employed in a hospital for years because she felt overwhelmed from short staffing and mistreatment from the healthcare system, according to Ernst. 


“I had nights where I worked in the ER of Charity Hospital many years ago, and you got a massive number of gunshot victims in one night. Everybody scrambled and did their best. But, at some point, it’ll pass until the next occasion. Not this on-going one after another. I remember telling [the] anestesia [department], ‘I cannot take anymore patients,’” said Ernst. 


The lack of safety equipment and ventilators within hospitals adds more stress to healthcare workers, which worries Ernst, and she feels the United States needs to re-examine its healthcare system.  


“The idea of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) telling nurses and physicians to reuse gloves and masks is just unimaginable. That’s not what the United States of America represents, right? It’s nice to know that we usually take care of our own and we have a better handle. And to think we’re one country with one of the highest rates of transmission. The healthcare is scary. It just simply is,” said Ersnt. 


For healthcare facilities that have not run out of equipment or safety gear, workers wear protective garments from head to foot to prevent infection.  


Nurse Cindy Andrews, a licensed practical nurse at University of Tennessee Methodist Physicians, is an officer for cardiologists. Andrews meets with 10-30 patients daily, while wearing: a mask, gloves, safety goggles, face shield and gown, according to Andrews. 


“It puts more strain on you because you’re dying underneath all of this, and you’re just sweating to death,” said Andrews. 


Andrews feels her mental health is affected because she’s afraid to catch the virus from patients who test COVID-19 positive, and the long work hours from short staff has led to indecisive decision making, Andrews said. 


“There’s so many things to take into account now. I don’t think people understand that. They think you’re made of armour and nothing really affects you,” said Andrews. 


Healthcare workers feel pressured to remain stoic in front of patients because it is frowned upon to request a break or express mental health concerns, according to Andrews. 


Robert John Sawyer, PhD., who is a neuropsychologist at Ochsner Health and the Medical Director for Professional Staff Experience within the Office of Professional Well-Being in New Orleans, said staff needed to feel “authentically supported” by those within their organisation. 


“Ochsner was well equipped to do this quickly because it had spent the past 2-3 years standing up an Office of Professional Wellbeing to specifically address stress and burnout among its workforce,” said Sawyer. 


Ocshner worked hard to ensure stable jobs/payments and free child care, created a 24/7 crisis line staffed by behavioral health technicians, and established decompression rooms (yoga, mindfulness and massages), said Sawyer. 


While Ochsner remains considerate of healthcare workers’ well-being, Ernst believes other healthcare facilities are secretive of unethical practices. 


“My knee jerk reaction was the exposure that it will provide. I suspect hospitals don’t want to go on record saying, ‘Yep, we told nurses to quit,’ if they weren’t going to stay on,” said Ernst.


Despite the stress and exhaustion from working, healthcare workers put their patients’ needs before their own to ensure they feel cared for, Andrews said. 


“What about the family members who’ve dealt with losing a loved one? Children of two and three years old and lost both parents? It brings you down,” said Ernst. 


On May 7, 2020, Pew Research Center found that one-third of Americans have experienced high rates of psychological distress, such as: anxiety, sleeplessness or depression, according to Pew Research Center. 


Ernst feels that many healthcare workers were battling mental disorders pre-COVID-19, the pandemic accelerated the decline in health, and people began committing suicide as a result. 


Jessica Gold, a member of the American Psychiatric Association’s Council Communications, said that healthcare has the highest rates of suicide and depression of any other profession. 


“If we aren’t talking about it, and ‘appear’ able to do our jobs without any challenges, it would be surprising for other people to notice it was an issue and start talking about it on their own,” said Gold. 


Gold said that it is essential healthcare workers take care of themselves first, in order to have a sustainable workforce during the pandemic, and they do not have long term mental health affects. 


“We know that stressful experiences can cause later symptoms of anxiety, sleep trouble, feelings of guilt/anger, and so forth. Having our staff take some time to talk about their experiences allows everyone to consciously process – together – what they went through,” said Sawyer. 

Makala Ougel, a mental health technician at River Oaks Behavioral Center and college student, prioritizes her self-care because she battles mental health issues, said Ougel. 


Makala Ougel, poses for a photo in her healthcare uniform.
Makala Ougel poses in her home for a photo before leaving for her first shift at River Oaks Behavioral Center. Having battled depression and anxiety, Ougel studies social work and works as a mental health technician to learn how to de-stigmatize mental disorders, according to Ougel. (Makala Ougel)


“If I do a whole day of just work and school, and I didn’t do anything, it’s really hard to go to work and take care of other people,” said Ougel. 


Ougel and Andrews said most of their time is spent at home reading and doing household activities for relaxation and to also not infect their patients. 


“It is critical to do this because we are human and hiding our feelings and choking them down doesn’t mean we don’t have them,” said Gold. 


With the change in season, and the expected surge in coronavirus cases this Fall and Winter, Ernst hopes healthcare workers find a balance between caring for the patients and themselves for the sake of the community as a whole, said Ernst. 

Sunset in front of a healthcare facility.
As the sun sets, temperatures drop to 65 degrees in front of University Medical Center. The fall and winter seasons are expected to overwhelm the healthcare system due to the rise in COVID-19 transmissions, according to healthcare workers. (Erin)

“Rosie the Riveter would say that those who are stronger need to support those who need it, no matter what profession you’re in. Lend a helping hand. Do what you can,” Ernst said.