COVID-19: Guidance for frontline workers

The COVID-19 pandemic is placing healthcare professionals across the world in an unprecedented situation. Gosia Bowling, Prevention Lead, explains the mental health difficulties being faced by many on the frontline as well as self-care tips to reduce the risk of mental ill health.

During this pandemic, healthcare workers are having to work under extreme pressure and make difficult decisions. According to the British Medical Journal the decisions that they have to make may include:

  • How to allocate scant resources to patients with equal need
  • How to balance their own physical and mental healthcare needs with those of patients
  • How to align their desire and duty to patients with those to family and friends
  • How to provide care for all severely unwell patients with constrained or inadequate resources.

If you are a frontline worker, this guidance is intended to help you:

  • Prepare for the difficult challenges ahead
  • Understand the mental health difficulties you or your colleagues may experience
  • Provide you with support and guidance to minimise the risk of mental ill health.

It's okay not to be okay

Feeling stressed is an experience that you and many of your colleagues are likely going through. It is normal to be feeling this way in the current situation. Stress and the feelings associated with it are by no means a reflection that you cannot do your job or that you are weak.

The COVID trauma working group, an expert group of psychological trauma specialists based at UCL, the Traumatic Stress Clinic, and other leading trauma centres and universities have produced this guidance for frontline staff during the pandemic.

Coping with stress

You are doing really important and difficult work. Over the coming days and weeks you will probably find that there are times when you feel anxious, stressed, scared, sad, overwhelmed, angry, guilty, helpless or even numb. These are all normal responses to an extremely challenging situation.

You may experience different emotions at different stages of the pandemic:

  • During the early stages you might feel anxious thinking about what could happen or that you are in a heightened state of “readiness”
  • At the peak phases you may experience surges of adrenaline
  • Over time you may feel more like you are “running on empty”.

There may be times when you feel guilty about difficult decisions that you have to make. There may be times when you feel you are coping well and times you feel that you are coping less well. Or you may not feel any of these things. 

Everyone is different, and everyone will experience different emotions at different times.

Taking care of yourself as well as others

If you feel overwhelmed, know that there are ways to get support. Talk to your colleagues, your manager, or someone else that you trust about how you are feeling.

You are not alone in this situation – your colleagues are likely to be experiencing similar things to you, and you can support each other.

Be compassionate to yourself and others. It is OK to say you are not OK.

Focus on what is in your control

Pay attention to things that are going well when you can. Share and celebrate the successes or small wins.

Remember this is a marathon, not a sprint. Even though this is a marathon, it will not last forever and the epidemic will end.

Self-care tips during COVID-19

  • Managing your stress/psychosocial wellbeing during this time is as important as managing your physical health. Try to limit the time you spend watching, reading or listening to the news and spend time deliberately engaging with tasks that take your mind away from the current crisis
  • Take care of your basic needs and ensure rest and respite during work or between shifts
  • Eat sufficient and healthy food
  • Engage in physical activity
  • Stay in contact with family and friends. Even if you can’t see them in person, you can have video and phone calls
  • Don’t try to learn new strategies, use the ones that you have used in the past to manage times of stress
  • This is likely to be a marathon - pace yourself
  • Consider your psychological energy levels - you will need to “fill up” after “emptying the tank”
  • Be aware of your “bandwidth”- it might take longer to think things through and make sense of things if you are feeling overwhelmed
  • Beware dramatic language that might panic your colleagues
  • Avoid using unhelpful coping strategies such as tobacco, alcohol or other drugs
  • Some workers may unfortunately experience avoidance by their family or community due to stigma or fear. If possible, staying connected with your loved ones including through digital methods is one way to maintain contact. Turn to your colleagues or team leader for social support – your colleagues may be having similar experiences to you.

For more tips on managing your mental health in uncertain times, click here.

Last updated Wednesday 24 February 2021

First published on Wednesday 22 April 2020