December 21, 2021

A new crisis of poor mental health is developing as public health workers endure extraordinary strain in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A prolonged emergency response, unendingly long and stressful working hours, and public mistrust and threats have led to burnout, “pandemic fatigue” and other mental health challenges that are detrimental to their ability to serve their communities.

Dr. John Wiesman

Dr. John Wiesman

Dr. Ed Baker

Dr. Ed Baker

Two experts in public health practice from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health have published a new article in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice detailing the scope of this mounting crisis and the steps that public health leaders must take to respond. The authors are John Wiesman, DrPH, MPH, professor of practice in health policy and management and director of the executive doctoral program in health leadership, and Edward Baker, MD, MPH, adjunct professor of health policy and management at the Gillings School and adjunct professor of environmental health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Wiesman says that “public health workers’ lives and those of their family members are being threatened simply because some people don’t like the public health measures to control the pandemic. Workers ‘ran out of gas’ long ago in response to the exhausting, stressful work and now have ‘compassion fatigue’ as the unvaccinated continue to get severely ill and die. And they are coping with antiquated systems that inadequately support their work. All of these and much more are taking a serious toll on their short- and long-term mental and physical health.”

Recent studies have found that more than half of surveyed public health workers have experienced an adverse mental health condition, such as anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, with long work hours and inability to take time off reported as contributing factors. One study found that 8.4 percent had reported suicidal ideation, and another reported that fewer workers planned to remain in public health practice for three or more years.

These effects, according to the authors, are evidence of a crisis that poses a threat to the future of the public health workforce. It is imperative that public health leaders create a sense of urgency and take immediate action to restore routine, foster recovery, and promote a renewal of spirit and commitment.

In the article, the authors suggest several best practices that leaders should implement to promote well-being and create a healthier workplace culture. These include setting limits and encouraging flexibility in how employees manage their time commitments to tasks and meetings, as well as setting priorities for what can reasonably be accomplished without staff becoming overwhelmed or overburdened. They encourage celebrating successes, no matter how small, to promote a sense of shared pride and purpose. Leadership is advised to create environments where staff can seek support when needed, as well as develop a formal code of conduct that models best practices in the workplace.

Finally, the authors suggest that leaders create an approach to monitor progress in addressing mental health challenges among their workforces.

Baker said these might include, “Kiosk ‘smiley face’ polls where workers push a button at a kiosk representing how they are feeling as they leave work that day or anonymous flash surveys delivered via computer analyzed alongside sick leave and health care usage. It’s important,” he said, “that these tools measure changes quickly so leaders can stay focused on the need and provide real-time support and solutions.”

While COVID-19 will continue to create new obstacles within public health practice, a proactive approach to mental health care is critical for the workers who will be called upon to rise to the challenge. Advocating for the well-being of those who are committed to serving communities can create a foundation for a steadfast and resilient profession.

Read the full article.

Mental health care resources are available for those in need.

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255 (TALK) or
  • National Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
  • Call your organization’s employee assistance program or your health plan for services

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