Mental health of hospital staff suffering in the fight against the pandemic

An Israeli study finds that stress and smoking are on the rise among medical, support employees working against COVID-19.

 Healthcare workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) stand at the entrance of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) hospital in Ahmedabad, India, January 7, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIT DAVE)
Healthcare workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) stand at the entrance of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) hospital in Ahmedabad, India, January 7, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIT DAVE)

Working on the front lines against the novel coronavirus often exacts a toll on hospital staffers’ mental health, with consequences that can wind up also damaging their physical health, according to a study released Tuesday. 

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Researchers studied staff at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem in May 2020, between the first and second waves of the COVID pandemic in Israel.

The study was led by Dr. Yael Bar-Zeev and Dr. Nir Hirshoren at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Braun School of Public Health and Hadassah Medical Center, along with Lev Academic Center’s Dr. Michal Shauly-Aharonov and the Hebrew University’s Prof. Yehuda Neumark.

Bar-Zeev told The Media Line the research team surveyed around a thousand hospital workers, and 59% reported an increase in their stress level.

Among the respondents, 132 reported that they smoke. Thirty-five percent of this group said they had increased their habit. “They noticed an uptick in the number of cigarettes they smoked every day,” the report said.

 A healthcare worker prepares to test a man for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a mobile testing truck, in Santiago, Chile, January 31, 2022.  (credit: IVAN ALVARADO/REUTERS) A healthcare worker prepares to test a man for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a mobile testing truck, in Santiago, Chile, January 31, 2022. (credit: IVAN ALVARADO/REUTERS)

According to Bar-Zeev, “Those who reported an increase in their stress levels also reported an increase in their smoking levels. The most important message is that during these times of high stress, uncertainty, and high workload, people are going to be smoking more and we need to address that.”

The Ministry of Health was quick to provide stress release therapies to help hospital workers cope, but nobody addressed the other health problems that this stress might cause, she said.

“So I think that when the government provides smokers with stress release therapies, it should also think about how to get them to address this stress using other mechanisms that do not harm their health,” Bar-Zeev continued.

Bar-Zeev pointed out that the study was not limited to doctors and nurses. “We surveyed all of the hospital’s staff, which also included maintenance and administrative workers, and the same data was found among them.”

Smoking cessation therapy options might not be the best way to address this problem, she said.

“Many smokers won’t be receptive to cessation programs right now. However, as the pandemic shows no signs of letting up, health ministries and hospitals need to take the mental health of their employees seriously and to provide stress-coping support for all their staff, even those not behind the gurney or with a scalpel in hand,” Bar-Zeev said.

Prof. Anat Brunstein Klomek, dean of the Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology at Reichman University in Herzliya, told The Media Line that smokers often use cigarettes as a way to cope with stress, but “smoking doesn’t reduce the stress in the long run. 

“It’s important to find healthy ways to handle stress. The aim is to help people develop emotional, cognitive, interpersonal, and behavioral skills to reduce the stress in an adaptive and effective way,” Brunstein Klomek said.

Mayer Brezis, emeritus professor of medicine at the Hebrew University and former director of the Center for Clinical Quality and Safety at Hadassah Medical Center, told The Media Line the research findings are even more worrying than they might appear because the increase in smoking is only part of a wider problem.

The quality of care at medical facilities is directly affected by the condition of the staff members, including their stress level and their physical health, Brezis said.

He added that there are ways to improve work conditions even in times of pandemic. The problem is that often “the hands of the hospitals’ managers are tied because of the limitations on the budget.”

This is an issue that the ministries of Health and Finance need to address, Brezis said.