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'It's a real challenge': Healthcare workers stressed after a year of COVID-19

“The best (protection) is really the collective precautions of trying to avoid contact that seems to make the difference. The classic statement is ‘we're all in this together’ and if we're not together, then I think we're going to fail.”
Sturgeon Hospital
FILE PHOTO/St. Albert Gazette

Health care professionals at the Sturgeon Hospital are suffering from burnout and moral distress after a year of the pandemic, one emergency room doctor says.

After a year of dealing with COVID-19 and the restrictions that come with it, Sturgeon Hospital emergency room doctor Scott MacLean said staff are exhausted and stressed out.

“We often hear in emergency medicine (we're) seeing people on the worst day of their lives, and I think that still holds true, but I think that after a year, things are magnified,” MacLean said.

Families are already tired of wearing masks everywhere, possibly facing financial difficulty, and then adding a health care scare into the mix depletes families’ capacity to manage their stress, MacLean said.

“The general public sees (the ER) as the face of healthcare and they are frustrated with the system. And they sometimes will take it out on the first person they see, whether (that's) their healthcare provider or a security guard or a greeter at the front door, and it's a real challenge,” MacLean said, adding that likely anyone in any frontline job has faced similar backlash from the public.

Healthcare workers are on edge, too, balancing their stressful work environment with also worrying about their families and living through a pandemic.

One of the reasons healthcare workers are feeling moral distress is because they are not able to support and comfort their patients in the ways they feel they need to, and they are having to constantly walk a fine line between empathy for families and enforcing safety protocols, MacLean explained. For families with an ailing loved one, having to enforce visitor restrictions to keep the hospital safe from COVID-19 can be tough.

With just one or two designated support people allowed in to see sick patients, the rules become more challenging for families to understand, because often they want to switch roles. 

“It's difficult to explain to someone whose sister flew from Halifax to come see them that they can't come in because their brother is already in there visiting them and that’s the reality. We try to balance risk with empathy but it's tough on everyone. And it's hard to be a part of,” MacLean said.

After a year of COVID-19, MacLean, who has worked as a doctor in the Canadian Forces and in emergency departments for a decade, said the stress involved in each shift has gone up and it is harder to decompress after.

COVID-19 numbers increase stress

The work environment in the hospital gets worse as COVID-19 numbers go up in the province, MacLean said, adding that wave two was pretty challenging but he fears especially for the next couple months.

The Sturgeon Hospital didn’t see many COVID-19 patients until the second wave and MacLean said he will now see a couple patients with the virus every shift out of a total of 20 patients.  

“The numbers will start to increase and we'll start to see sicker patients and it has real downstream effects,” MacLean said, adding now patients with less serious illnesses, like broken bones, may be waiting hours to get treated because COVID-19 patients need a lot of time and care.

And with COVID-19, MacLean said it isn’t easy to predict who will get really sick and who won’t.  Sometimes a patient will come in with a cough or a fever and by the next day they can be in the ICU struggling to breathe.

“The reality is it doesn't seem predictable, and it doesn't seem fair – you can do everything possible to protect yourself, and you can be the unlucky one,” MacLean said.

“The best (protection) is really the collective precautions of trying to avoid contact that seems to make the difference. The classic statement is ‘we're all in this together’ and if we're not together, then I think we're going to fail.”

Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

About the Author: Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for Great West Newspapers based in St. Albert, Alta.
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