Inside Disruption Blog

Stress in Healthcare Workers during the Outbreak

Jeff Gorter, MSW, LCSW
July 23, 2020




By Jeff Gorter MSW, LCSW

VP of Clinical Crisis Response


The unique and extreme challenges faced by Health Care Workers (HCW) during the COVID-19 pandemic have frequently been reported in the news and on social media during the course of the outbreak, as well they should. For those outside of the HC industry, however, the realities experienced by Health Care Workers on a day-to-day basis are only vaguely known and often misperceived. Those who serve in hospital, assisted living, skilled nursing, and similar settings understand that providing Health Care in this national crisis elicits a wide range of reactions. For many, the tremendous pride and satisfaction that come from delivering “frontline” care during an unprecedented crisis is affirming, reinforcing the skills and commitment that drew them to the profession. On the other hand, the understandable fear of exposure creates operational and emotional challenges that fall outside the normal rigors of caregiving.  Most HCWs vacillate between these, depending on the circumstances of the day, but the common experience is professional and personal stress, including:


Professional Stress


  • Meeting continued daily workload demands that compete with COVID-19 preparation and treatment measures
  • Working long hours/concurrent shifts with no clear end to the crisis in sight
  • Concerns about existing or returned shortages of needed PPE supplies
  • The need to employ strict biosecurity measures increases physical strain due to PPE usage (dehydration, heat, exhaustion, is cumbersome, etc.)
  • The need to maintain high standards in the face of an event for which official recommendations and policies change regularly
  • Physical isolation exacerbates emotional isolation. This includes restrictions on touching others during a shift (i.e. compassionate expression to terminal patients), and after working hours (loved ones, friends, etc.)
  • The constant awareness and vigilance regarding infection control procedures can be exhausting
  • The fear of the unknown, as so many aspects of this disease remain unclear and speculative


Personal Stress


  • Possible separation from (i.e. quarantine) and subsequent concern about family members (i.e. meeting family obligations)
  • Fears about transmitting/introducing infection and the implications for self, patients, and family
  • Inner conflict about competing needs and demands
  • The tension between public health directives and the wishes of patients and their families regarding quarantine (restricted visitation frustrates/confuses families, while often shifting the burden of end-of-life emotional support to frontline HCWs)


Managing Stress during the Pandemic


Self-care for Health Care Workers can be complex and challenging, given that professionals in these roles may prioritize the needs of others over their own. An effective self-care strategy recognizes that HCWs will need different tactics at different times, in response to the unique challenges of any given day and the evolving nature of the pandemic. All efforts should support a sense of control and affirm the contribution of Health Care Workers, without making them feel unrealistically responsible for the lives of those in their care.


The following suggestions have proven valuable for many frontline HCWs:


  • Self-monitoring and setting a realistic pace during a shift
  • Working in partnerships or in teams during shifts. Intentionally establishing a “buddy system” encourages mutual care and accountability
  • Intentionally taking brief relaxation/stress management breaks, including time-outs for basic bodily care, exercise and refreshment, both during shifts and after
  • Regularly seeking out accurate information, mentoring and peer consultation to assist in making decisions and counter negative attitudes
  • Intentionally choosing to maintain helpful self-talk and avoid overgeneralizing fears
  • Focusing their efforts on what is within their power, and accepting situations they cannot change
  • Consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective
  • Regular check-ins with colleagues, family, and friends outside of your Health Care setting
  • Look for ways to see the situation as an opportunity to learn or build new strengths/skills
  • Acknowledge successes, and take satisfaction in completing tasks, even small ones
  • Consider journaling as a way to acknowledge, organize, and compartmentalize strong emotions related to the pandemic, both the challenges and successes
  • Limit exposure to the media


Caring for those who care for others begins with each of us. R3c can help in strategic planning, consultation, direct support or leadership training to maintain your team’s behavioral well-being. Call us!





Managing Healthcare Workers’ Stress During the COVID-19 Outbreak; (2020) National Center for PTSD

Improving First Responder Well-Being During the COVID-19 Outbreak; (2020) First Responder Center for Excellence

Reissman, D. B., et al (2006). Pandemic influenza preparedness: adaptive responses to an evolving challenge. Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, 3(2)



Ensure the physical and psychological safety and security of your organization. Talk to us.

Jeff Gorter, MSW

VP, Crisis Response Clinical Services

Jeff Gorter, MSW, is VP, Crisis Response Clinical Services for R3 Continuum. Mr. Gorter brings over 29 years of clinical experience including consultation and extensive on-site critical incident response to businesses and communities. He has responded directly to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the Virginia Tech shootings, the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill, the earthquake/tsunami in Japan, and the Newtown Tragedy,Orlando Tragedy, and Las Vegas Tragedy. He has conducted trainings and presented at the American Psychological Association Annual Conference, the World Conference on Disaster Management, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies Annual Meeting, Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) Annual World Conference and at other state and national venues on a variety of topics. Mr. Gorter also currently serves as an adjunct faculty member at Western Michigan University in the MSW Graduate Program.