The current burden on healthcare workers is unique. A survey of healthcare workers in China found that 72 percent of nurses and physicians treating COVID-19 patients experienced psychological distress[i]. People who aren’t on the frontline right now cannot fully understand the weight of trying to maintain control over the pandemic our world is facing. While the general public can provide support from afar, it’s important that people on the frontlines help each other with the mental burden of this pandemic. There is a tremendous amount of power in shared experiences; humans need social connection and mutual feelings of vulnerability and stress often create some of the strongest social bonds[ii]. In situations like this, the support of colleagues can make a huge difference in your day-to-day wellbeing.
Some hospitals, health systems, and other frontline responder organizations and workplaces have started peer support programs to help employees with their own mental health challenges during this time of crisis. Peer support refers to support from a person with similar lived experiences to your own – which can mean anything from living with depression to managing diabetes to being on the frontlines of COVID-19. Peers improve health outcomes for a variety of conditions[iii], and peer support programs for healthcare professionals have seen success in employees supporting each other after witnessing and/or responding to medical crises[iv].
There are a number of ways to start up your own peer support group, as formally or informally as you want. Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA launched a task force in 2004 to develop a support service for care providers – the article “Peer support: healthcare professionals supporting each other after adverse medical events” lays out how the program was implemented. After a clinical colleague came in as a patient and experienced near death, one-on-one and group peer support sessions were offered; group participants felt a deep sense of esprit de corp and healing that went beyond the immediate crisis. Peers for Progress, an organization out of University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, has resources on creating a peer support program that is structured for sustainability. On a smaller scale, you and a partner can sign up for PeerRx, a guided peer-to-peer program for people working in health care to keep burnout at bay. But peer support doesn’t have to be formal. Something as simple as starting a Facebook group, group chat, or even message board in the workplace can be beneficial. By creating a resource hub, you open up a way for people to share articles, tips, knowledge, and emotional support.
A lot more goes into workplace culture and mental health than big initiatives. Here are some other ways to support the people you see day to day:
Check in on each other.
A genuine “how are you doing?” goes a long way in helping someone feel supported and more connected to the people around them. Try to push beyond a simple “Good! You?” (or sarcasm or dark humor) – you may have to open up first to show you’re sincerely asking how they’re really doing. And make sure to follow through - if someone tells you they're struggling and you don’t have time for a full conversation, let them know they have your support and that you’ll reach out soon. When you follow up, make sure you’re listening to what they need; some people may want help finding resources, while others may just need some time to vent with someone who understands.
Approach general wellbeing as a team.
Sometimes you need to address your own needs while at work, which can be challenging in a busy environment or when focused on caring for others. Make sure you and your colleagues are giving each other the time and coverage to take care of yourselves – things like eating, drinking water, using the bathroom, texting a loved one, or taking a few minutes to decompress after a particularly stressful situation are all important for your overall wellbeing.
Hold each other accountable for self-care. Share what you’re doing to maintain your own mental health and any upcoming self-care goals you have, like reading a book to unwind, or plans for what you’ll do the next time you have a few days off. Ask what others are doing. Knowing your coworkers are expecting you to do something for yourself can provide that extra bit of motivation to follow through with it, especially when you’re exhausted. Don’t forget to ask how their self-care activity went the next time you see them!
Take time to laugh.
Humor can be a very effective coping tool during scary and tense times. Don’t be afraid to send memes, crack a joke or share a funny story - just be mindful of your timing and audience.
Practicing gratitude is a great way to shift your mental health into a more positive space. Thanking your coworkers when they do something to help you out or make your day a bit easier is a win-win; it will boost your mood, make your coworker feel appreciated and noticed, and help you both feel more connected to your workplace community.
Pay attention to nonverbal cues.
A lot of people have trouble opening up about how they’re feeling, and some may not even realize that they’re struggling if they’re constantly focused on reacting to emergencies. If you’re looking, you can probably pick up on which of your coworkers are having a harder time than others. Typical body language varies from person to person, but if you notice a change like less eye contact or moving or talking slower, it’s worth bringing up. Not engaging in conversation is another sign, whether they completely avoid the situation or join but remain distant. Reach out to those individuals - there’s no need for anyone to suffer alone. If you aren’t comfortable doing so, mention what you’ve noticed to one of their closer friends or a supervisor.
[i] Lai J, Ma S, Wang Y, et al. Factors Associated With Mental Health Outcomes Among Health Care Workers Exposed to Coronavirus Disease 2019. JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(3):e203976. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.3976
[ii] Seppala, E. (2012). How the stress of disaster brings people together. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-stress-of-disaster-brings-people-together/
[iii] Peers for Progress. (2012). Science behind peer support. http://peersforprogress.org/learn-about-peer-support/science-behind-peer-support/
[iv] Van Pelt, F. (2008). Peer support: healthcare professionals supporting each other after adverse medical events. BMJ Quality & Safety, 17(4), 249-52. doi:10.1136/qshc.2007.025536