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A recent CDC survey of 26,000 public health workers found higher levels of depression, anxiety, PTSD and suicidal ideation among those who couldn’t take time off.
The coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on public health workers.
Burnout is rampant, but staffing shortages and increasing hospitalization rates make it difficult to recuperate.
A recent survey details the impact, finding that half of public health workers reported experiencing mental health problems during the pandemic. Symptoms were worse among those who were unable to take time off from work, according to the survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The survey of approximately 26,000 public health workers found that 53% of state, tribal, local, and territorial public health workers had experienced at least one symptom of a mental health condition in the past two weeks. Among those workers, 32% reported depression, 30% reported anxiety, 37% reported PTSD, and 8% reported suicidal ideation. Most (93%) of the survey takers reported working on Covid-19 “response activities.”
About 8,500 of the workers reported that they could not take time off from work. The reasons why varied. Only 18% reported that their employer did not allow time off from work. Sixty-four percent said they were concerned about falling behind on work if they took time off, while 60% said there is no coverage for time taken off. A near equal percentage said they would feel guilty taking time off.
But the lack of time off to recuperate and recharge had a noticeable effect on their mental health, the CDC survey found. Those workers reported mental health symptoms at higher levels—45% reported depression, 42% reported anxiety, 51% reported PTSD and 12% reported suicidal ideation.
The CDC asked workers about other impacts on their mental health, such as number of hours worked and the percent of time their job was focused on coronavirus-related response, but the survey found “the inability to take time off had the largest impact on reporting symptoms of mental health.”
“Addressing work practices that contribute to stress and trauma is critical to managing workers’ adverse mental health status during emergency responses,” the CDC report said.
The CDC recommends several strategies that public health employers could use to reduce adverse mental health symptoms. They include:
- Recruiting surge personnel to expand staff size
- Implementing flexible schedules to reduce the need for long hours
- Proactively encouraging workers to take regular breaks and time off.
Local public health departments have struggled with historic turnover during the coronavirus pandemic. Long hours and burnout have contributed to low morale. Meanwhile, politicization of public health orders led to backlash and many public health leaders have faced harassment and threats.
Historic Turnover and Vacancies
The turnover has led to significant staffing shortages at some local hospitals.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Services facility in Little Rock has 360 vacancies for health care providers, including 230 vacant nursing positions. The hospital is so desperate for staff, it’s offering $25,000 signing bonuses, CNN reported.
In Texas, the Harris Health System is down 250 nurses, according to the Houston Chronicle. Meanwhile, hospitalizations for Covid-19 infections are rising across the state—up 35% from a week ago.
Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.
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