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The lasting legacy to our healthcare heroes may not be what you expect

Long after we have successfully wrestled COVID-19 into dormancy, healthcare workers are likely to be left with another enduring remnant of the pandemic: chronic stress.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare providers’ own well-being was significantly lower than that of the average of the general population. In fact, the rate of burnout, compassion fatigue and poor well-being can be considered a pandemic all of its own. The Canadian Medical Association reports that 34% of physicians surveyed reported depression. Burnout was identified by almost a third of physicians and is higher in women, residents and physicians who work in a hospital. And 8% had suffered from suicidal thoughts in the last month alone. Nurses experience similar challenges.

We know that SARS had long lasting and negative impacts on a third to over a half of healthcare workers providing service during that time. Two years afterwards, healthcare workers in hospitals treating SARS patients were likely to have significantly higher rates of chronic stress compared to those working in similar hospitals according to research led by Dr. Robert Maunder and others. Chronic stress wasn’t the only problem- they also had significantly higher rates of burnout, depression, anxiety and substance abuse, resulting in negative system impacts as well.

My 25 years in healthcare leadership roles, including working at Mount Sinai Hospital during SARS, I remember the fear and dis-ease my peers and I felt. I recall the phone call I got from the Infection Control Department notifying me that I had been in contact with someone with the virus, asking about my symptoms and suggesting I self-isolate immediately. I was with my aging parents as I got the call, sitting at their kitchen table and was worried, I might have inadvertently passed the virus onto them.

Stress, demanding workloads, unreasonable expectations, and lack of autonomy all contribute to burnout and poor mental and physical health outcomes. Combine that with the uncertainty about the infections rate of spread, and the healthcare workers concerns about access to Personal Protective Equipment, their resilience is being tested like never before. With already high rates of distress in healthcare workers, the pandemic has all the characteristics of a disaster. The good news is that resilience or the ability to bounce back from adversity can be learned.

A number of evidence-based approaches to building resilience are available. Leaders in organizations can start right now to build a plan to begin to address these needs. Individuals in healthcare can enhance their own resilience by strengthening their family and social connections and by accessing tools resilience building tools. Now is the time to make and implement a plan to support the health and well-being of our healthcare workers and leaders. And while it would have been even better to have made this investment before the pandemic, it is not too late.

Critics might argue that our healthcare workers have enough on their plate right now, how can we possibly add more? While some areas of the healthcare system like long term care are severely overburdened right now, the reality is that many hospitals are operating significantly below normal levels of capacity. We are just talking about getting non-urgent surgeries back on track, and the flattening of the curve has resulted in less COVID cases than originally predicted leaving many staff with significantly more time than usual. This allows the roll out of programs and training to be done as each team and facility has the capacity.

Let’s not repeat the lessons of SARS. By moving forward with resilience training for all healthcare workers, we can leave them a lasting legacy we can all be proud of.

Laura Macdougall is a leading authority for senior women leaders in the non-profit and healthcare sectors who are designing their next chapters in life, work and legacy. For more information on her resilience training packages, email her at

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