Pandemic Exacts Huge Toll on Healthcare Workers, Survey Finds

Mary Caffrey

Mary Caffrey is the Associate Editorial Director of AJMC/Managed Care for MJH Life Sciences. Her editorial responsibilities include Evidence-Based Oncology, Chief Healthcare Executive, and Managed Healthcare Executive.

With less than half of the workers having been vaccinated and some suffering long-term effects from the stress of the past year, it’s clear from the survey results that the effects of the pandemic will be with health workers for months or years to come.

Nearly two-thirds of the nation’s healthcare workers say worry or stress has had a major impact on their lives, according to a new survey that finds most are experiencing disrupted sleep, nearly a third having headaches or stomach problems and 16% admitting to heavy use of alcohol or drugs. Only 13% are getting mental health care, however, and another 18% say they might need services but did not get them.

The KFF/Washington Post Frontline Health Care Workers Survey, released today, is based on interviews with 1,327 frontline healthcare workers form hospitals, doctors’ offices, outpatient clinics, nursing homes, and assisted care facilities. The survey includes a comparison survey of 971 adults who do not work in healthcare. The survey took place from February 15 to March 11, 2021.

A year after COVID-19 began overwhelming the US hospitals, and four months after the first vaccine received FDA’s blessing to be administered in the United States, some healthcare workers see an end in sight. But with less than half of the workers having been vaccinated and some suffering long-term effects from the stress of the past year, it’s clear from the survey results that the effects of the pandemic will be with health workers for months or years to come.

The survey captured statements from workers that describe life during the pandemic, and reveal the nature of the day-to-day stress. One 33-year-old woman who handles patient treatment and diagnosis in Missouri said:

“The extra steps needed when I come home from working with COVID patients. [I] have to undress in the garage and straight to the shower. Sometimes making my son sleep overnight at his grandmas when I have seen COVID patients that day.”

Young workers, those aged 18-29, appear to be hardest hit by the pandemic. The survey found:

  • Three-fourths of younger frontline healthcare workers report worry or stress related to COVID-19 has had a negative impact on their mental health.
  • Seven in 10 of the youngest workers say they feel “burned out” about work.
  • 45% report assisting with patient care such as bathing, cleaning, and housekeeping
  • 13% of the youngest frontline health care workers say they had at least 10 patients in their direct care who died as a result of COVID-19.

More than half of the workers (56%) say their hospital or workplace has been over capacity at some point of intensive care unit (ICU) beds, and 34% of workers at hospitals and nursing homes said that at some point during the pandemic, their workplace ran out of personal protective equipment. While most said their employer is “doing the right amount” or “going beyond” in providing leave to employees who have COVID-19 or getting workers vaccinated, the survey also reveals that setting matters: A majority who work in patients’ homes (56%) say their employer is “falling short” in providing extra pay for workers who are in high-risk situations.

More than half (61%,) said that most Americans are not taking enough precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Sentiments were higher among Black health care workers, and younger health care workers ages 18-29.

Still, there was some cause for hope:

  • 6 in 10 frontline workers say they anticipate the pandemic to be controlled in the United States by 2022 to resume a normal life
  • 47% say a normal life may come by mid-fall or sooner