KFF/Post Survey Reveals the Serious Mental Health Challenges Facing Frontline Health Care Workers a Year into the COVID-19 Pandemic

8 in 10 Say Potentially Being Exposed to COVID-19 at Work and Putting Family Members at Risk are Sources of Stress

About 1 in 6 Tested Positive for COVID-19, though Few Experienced Major Symptoms; Those Working in Nursing Homes or Assisted Living Facilities Most Likely to Report Testing Positive

More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, a majority of frontline health care workers say the crisis is taking a toll on their mental health, including about 3 in 10 who either received mental health services or thought they needed them directly as a result of the pandemic, a KFF/The Washington Post national survey finds.

Most (62%) frontline health care workers say that worry and stress related to the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health, the survey of all frontline health care workers shows. At least 4 in 10 frontline health care workers say that the pandemic has negatively impacted their physical health (49%), and their relationships with family members (42%) and coworkers (41%).

Sizeable shares report experiencing sleep-related problems (47%), frequent headaches or stomachaches (31%), and increased alcohol or drug use (16%) that they attribute to pandemic-related worry and stress. More than half (56%) report experiencing at least one of these three issues.

 

About 8 in 10 frontline health care workers say concerns about being exposed to COVID-19 at work and exposing others in their household have been sources of stress during the past year, including at least 4 in 10 who say these concerns were “major sources of stress.” A smaller majority (63%) say concern about having enough personal protective equipment has been a source of stress.

For about 3 in 10 frontline health workers, the mental health challenges led them to obtain mental health care or medications (13%) or to think that they needed such services but didn’t get them (18%). Among those who felt they needed but didn’t get mental health care, the most commonly cited reasons are because they were too busy (27%), they were afraid or embarrassed about seeking care (17%), they couldn’t afford it (16%), or they couldn’t get time off work (14%).

The survey results show that younger frontline health care workers (those under age 30) seem to be the hardest hit, with three quarters (75%) reporting that the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health, and nearly as many (69%) saying they feel “burned out.”

About 1 in 6 frontline health care workers (16%) say they tested positive for COVID-19 at some point during the pandemic. The share who contracted COVID-19 was somewhat higher among those working in nursing homes or assisted care facilities (24%) than in hospitals (18%), doctor’s offices or clinics (14%), or home health care (8%).

About a quarter of those who tested positive (4% of all health care workers) say they experienced “major symptoms,” while the rest reported only minor symptoms or no symptoms at all.

The findings come from the latest KFF/Post partnership survey, which examines the experiences of frontline health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Frontline health care workers include those who come into contact with patients or bodily fluids across many different aspects of patient care, including diagnosis and treatment, administrative duties, and assisting with as bathing, eating, cleaning, exercising, and housekeeping. Findings appear in The Washington Post and in a KFF report.

More than half (56%) of those who worked in hospitals say their intensive-care units were overcapacity at some point during the pandemic, and a third (34%) of those who worked at hospitals or nursing homes say that at some point they ran out of personal protective equipment.

Other findings include:

  • A slim majority (56%) of frontline health care workers who are not self-employed say that their employer is “falling short” in providing hazard pay for those who work in the most high-risk situations. Fewer say their employer is “falling short” in providing adequate paid sick leave (33%) or ensuring employees can get vaccinated (12%).
  • Most frontline health workers (58%) don’t expect Americans to be able to safely return to normal life until 2022. Smaller shares expect a return to normal by mid-summer (24%) or between mid-summer and mid-fall (18%).
  • When asked to describe in their own words what the hardest part of working during the pandemic has been, similar shares say that it was being worried about getting exposed to and sick from COVID-19 or exposing family members (21%) and having to wear masks and other personal protective equipment (16%).  Fewer cited other concerns such as safety protocols and precautionary measures (8%) and being overworked with long hours and lack of time off (7%).

The project, the 35th KFF/The Washington Post partnership survey, includes interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,327 frontline health care workers (direct contact with patients and their bodily fluids), representing hospitals, doctors’ offices, outpatient clinics, nursing homes and assisted care facilities, and those working in home health care. The sample includes workers who work in many, and multiple, different aspects of patient care including patient diagnosis and treatment, administrative duties, and/or assisting with patient care such as bathing, eating, cleaning, exercising, and housekeeping. The survey also included a comparison survey allowing researchers to compare the group of frontline healthcare workers to the general population, that included 971 U.S. adults not working as frontline health care workers. The margin of sampling error for the group of frontline health care workers is 3 percentage points, national comparison sample is 4 percentage points. For results based on subgroups, the margin of sampling error may be higher.

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