No matter who you are, what you do, and where you are in the world, it is unlikely that you have escaped the impact that COVID-19 has had on our economy, our working life, and our social culture. If you haven’t got a family member or friend who has been affected by the virus directly, it is probable that someone you know has been considered a ‘key worker’ during the pandemic. This key worker status has been attributed to employees who are either working on the front line in hospitals, testing centers, emergency services, or who are helping to keep life moving by providing resources amidst the panic, such as farmers, lorry drivers, and supermarket staff.
Whilst everyone has been exposed to the virus as we try to go about our lives in this strange time, it is the key workers who have no choice but to deal with the virus on a daily basis, even during times of lockdowns when we are all advised to stay indoors and to stay away from close contact with other people.
We’ve compiled a list concentrating on nurses and how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted one specific profession within the key workers, since 2020 was branded as the year of the nurse back in 2019 – not because the WHO predicted the COVID-19 virus, but because 2020 marks the 200th anniversary of Florence Nightingale. This campaign actually aimed to encourage others to make a difference in the nursing profession and to contribute towards making the necessary changes that were needed in order to strengthen nurses as a whole.
It will come as no surprise, given the extensive reports and articles on the shocking figures, that hospital staff on the frontline have been significantly at risk whilst working during the pandemic. As a result, it was reported in early August that over 900 US healthcare workers have died of COVID-19, with thousands more having tested positive or shown symptoms of the virus. This figure is likely to have dramatically increased since this report was released. Even the families and loved ones of nurses who have passed away from COVID-19 have been able to access the support and financial compensation that they are entitled to, which is essential for many families in order to actually give their loved ones the burial that they deserve. This is a problem that many articles have highlighted and so there is hope that action will be taken to address this issue.
Yet, COVID-19 has not been the only risk for nurses working during the worst peaks of the virus, but over exhaustion and dehydration have meant that nurses are taking care of others, rather than taking care of themselves. Nurses have failed to take care of themselves, and have put the needs of us ahead of their own, due to the pressure, the volume of patients, and the time constraints that have been unnaturally excessive over the past months. This is not the fault of nurses, but the lack of guidance and help in place for nurses to be reassured that their wellbeing and physical health is their priority, to ensure they are fit enough to be in the workplace.
Exactly what do nurse practitioners do? And is this even the role that they are expected to fulfill now? With a lack of personal protection equipment (PPE) and a lack of adequate resources to deal with the rising number of patients entering the hospital – whether they have contracted COVID-19 or not – it is hardly surprising that 2020 has demanded more from nurses than anyone could have ever expected. Many of the nurses working at this time, will never have experienced a pandemic or virus outbreak before, and so have never received the correct training or practice to deal with such an incident. This, in combination with the PPE and staffing shortages, has meant that nurses have been placed under great strain without any alternative options or outlets to improve the situation. They have been forced to adapt and learn without anyone to guide them, which means that any criticism they have received has been greatly unfair and misjudged.
All job roles and professions require you to be flexible and to be able to adapt to new circumstances or situations, but most of this adaptation is gradual and you are forgiven for any errors that you make because it is a learning process. Nurses, however, have not been given this same sympathy, largely due to the fact that nurses are in part responsible for keeping living beings alive. Whilst patients and their families should expect the best care to ensure the best outcome possible, it is also important to remember that nurses are humans too, who are also dealing with a situation that is as unknown and uncertain to them, as it is to you. There should be a level of respect and understanding shown towards nurses at all times, but particularly during these difficult circumstances.
Not only have nurses put themselves at risk of contracting the virus, but they have put their loved ones and those they live with at risk too. Can you imagine coming home after a 12-hour shift, and fearing for your loved ones to end up in a similar position as the patients that you have just witnessed struggling to breathe without their loved ones nearby? Many nurses will have elderly parents or children with health problems, who will need to be shielded away from contracting the virus as it could be deadly to those in the ‘at risk’ categories. Therefore, some nurses have been forced to live in hospital accommodation, isolated, so that they do not put anyone else at risk from the exposure of the virus.
This has caused great difficulty for nurses, who are forced between choosing whether to ‘do their duty’ to save lives or choosing to put their wellbeing first. Working during the pandemic but also having an outlet to release the stress that their working life has built up is important. Being in isolation without any social contact, just as we had to do during lockdown but more than likely had the company of other family or housemates during a period of time when we had nothing to do, nurses must deal with the emotional trauma of their daily life without anyone to share this with, or to comfort them. On top of this, many nurses are not receiving the pay that they deserve, or have not received wages for the extra hours that they have been asked to work during the pandemic. This has caused financial stress on top of the existing pressures of the job, which is unacceptable. Yet, there are support structures in place that are able to advise and open claims for nurses to access the wages that they are entitled to.
Of course, as a nurse or health-care worker, the job comes with long shifts and unsociable working hours. This is part of the job. However, the nurses working during the pandemic did not sign up for over 12-hour shifts without breaks to take a sip of water, nibble on something to eat, or room to breathe which are essential to maintaining your wellbeing. This is largely due to the fact that there is such a high demand for patient care, and there are restrictions in many hospitals preventing hospital staff from crossing from infected areas to non-infected areas. Therefore, there are limited numbers of staff in each area of the hospital and so there are no opportunities for staff to take time out for themselves, in a time where this is most needed due to the stress and trauma that the pandemic is causing.
Yet, there are services and facilities available for nurses who are feeling vulnerable, suffering mentally, and anxious as a result of their work. All hospitals should provide their staff with access to therapy and psychosocial support services. Obviously, this will not prevent staff from suffering from mental difficulties, but it will help them to deal with any problems that they are having. Ensuring that a buddy system by partnering experienced nurses with newly qualified nurses, even during the pandemic and busy period, will help to monitor these new starters and hopefully prevent them from suffering from any future stresses or issues. Through this buddy scheme, nurses can share their healthy coping mechanisms and seek to avoid any unhealthy ways of dealing with the stress that comes with the demands of the job, particularly during this time. Such healthy coping mechanisms include taking five minutes before and after each shift to remind yourself or write down something positive that has happened, or something that you are grateful for. This will put you back on track towards an optimistic mindset, and help to redirect your energy towards life beyond the hospital and its current atmosphere during the COVID-19 crisis. To ease your concerns and worries about contracting COVID-19 you should create a mantra or use cognitive-behavior skills to remind yourself of how you are taking the correct precautions and using control practices to keep yourself healthy and free from the virus.
The shocking figures and reports surrounding hospital staff deaths or illnesses have now led to government responses, as they are finally recognizing the problems that the healthcare sector have been facing. Whilst there is still work to be done, some hospitals now have access to the correct PPE that they have needed for so long, and hospital staff can now take COVID-19 tests as and when they need them. Even if the tests have been discussed as not completely reliable, the tests will allow any nurses who are taking days off to actually see their loved ones as they know they are COVID-19 free if they do not show any symptoms and have a negative test. This will help nurses to feel more at ease with their health and work-life balance, as well as maintain their mental wellbeing because they are able to see those they love without concern for their health. Additionally, hospitals have now been given guidelines outlining how they should look after their staff during this difficult time. Recently, some nurses have complained that they have received more useful information beyond the hospital setting, about the hospital or area that they are working within. It has been proven that staff feel less stressed when they receive truthful communication and reassurance from their line managers. This information delivered, whether good news or bad news, is trusted to be accurate and realistic. It is especially important that the information is correct so that staff are aware of the current situation ongoing in the hospital that they are working within, as well as the nearby area. By ensuring that all managers have instructed and delivered key information to their staff members, nurses should be well-equipped and ready to deal with a sudden influx of patients as they have been prepared in advance.
Regardless of the difficulties and the constraints that nurses and other healthcare professionals are currently facing, these nurses are resilient and have taken the problems in their stride. Not only are they continuing to perform to their very best ability during such an exhausting time in healthcare, but they have taken pride in their work and many have received the recognition that they have never felt but deserved before. It is an extremely rewarding time to be a healthcare professional, and particularly as a nurse when you are being given greater responsibilities and are working under greater pressure than before. This pandemic will not last forever, with vaccines on the horizon, but the dedication, resilience, and care that nurses have provided this past year – not to mention throughout history – will be remembered forever. Hopefully, going forward, nurses will actually continue to be appreciated and recognized for years to come – not just during this difficult period which has impacted us all.