Female health-care workers at increased risk for stress, burnout and depression during COVID-19

July 23, 2020

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By: Nicole Bodnar

Female health-care workers — who comprise eighty per cent of Canada’s health workforce — are at increased risk for stress, burnout and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study led by IHPME researchers.

Professor Abi Sirharan
Professor Abi Sirharan

“Our early findings suggest that the pandemic is resulting a number of serious negative health outcomes for women, specifically younger and mid-career women, triggered by a variety of individual-, organizational-, and systems-level factors,” said Abi Sriharan, lead author on the paper and Assistant Professor at IHPME.

During a pandemic, the health-care system and health workers are subject to increased stress burnout, and depression, which can lead to substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. Recent reports show that COVID-19 has socially, psychologically, and economically affected women because of their primary caregiving roles as parents and family caregivers.

Sriharan collaborated with Dr. Doina Lupea from the Ontario Medical Association’s Physician Health Program  and  Professors Savithiri Ratnapalan and Andrea Tricco to study evidence related to stress, burnout, and depression among women in health care during coronavirus pandemics and the interventions that can prevent them. This work was supported by an operating grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research

In their paper, the research team identified a broad number of common triggers, including individual-level factors, such as age, family status, factors relating to work conditions such as access to personal protective equipment, training and preparedness to care for COVID-19 patients, and systems-level factors such as clear guidelines, and recognition for the work.

“If  we don’t act quickly to create organizational culture to support women working in health care, there will be significant, long term impacts on our health care delivery infrastructure, ” said Sriharan, who also noted the lack of data on women’s socioeconomic, cultural and ethno-racial differences in mental health outcomes.

Sriharan and her colleagues found that static online mental health resources such as websites, psychological assistance hotlines, and coordinated group activities for stress reduction are poorly utilized by women. Instead, just-in-time self-help resources such as self-help book recommendations, positive messages and social support are preferred.

A number of additional measures were identified that can positively impact female health-care worker well-being, including financial support, provision of rest areas for sleep and recovery, care for basic physical needs (i.e. meal plans during shifts), manageable workload, training programs to improve resiliency, information on protective measures, access to leisure activities, and counsellors if needed.

“It’s critical that hospitals pay attention to the work environment and provide health-care workers with tools and ongoing training to care for COVID-19 patients,” said Sriharan.

“Further, managers must carefully assess and monitor work hours, workload, and the number of COVID 19-positive patients a health-care worker can safely care for.”

Sriharan is hosting a webinar in September targeted at female health-care workers to create a space for discussion, knowledge and resource-sharing. Click here for more information.

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