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COVID conditions significantly worsened nurses' mental health, UBC researcher finds

The mental health of frontline nurses who work in both hospitals and long-term care homes has shown a significant decline during the COVID-19 pandemic, new research has shown.

The mental health of frontline nurses who work in both hospitals and long-term care homes has shown a significant decline during the COVID-19 pandemic, new research has shown.

North Vancouver researcher Farinaz Havaei, an assistant professor in UBC’s School of Nursing, is part of a team that examined the impacts of the pandemic on nurses’ mental health.

What they found, said Havaei, is that the stresses of dealing with COVID have made an already-bad situation for nurses even worse.

“There was a rise in specifically the prevalence of anxiety and depression,” she said.

Research showed heavy workloads, staffing shortages, lack of organizational support and lack of access to adequate PPE all contributed to worsening mental health among nurses, said Havaei.

That’s significant, she added, because nurses already show much higher rates of anxiety and depression than other workers.

Working in the environment of the constantly changing pandemic has simply added more stresses on top of that.

To collect their data, Havaei and her colleagues received questionnaires from over 3,600 B.C. nurses – including both registered nurses and licenced practical nurses – in June and July of 2020.

Among the questions asked was whether nurses had had direct contact with COVID patients, whether they were concerned about bringing the virus home to their families, whether they had adequate access to PPE and if they had ever been told to work despite having COVID-like symptoms.

The study found over 86 per cent of nurses surveyed worried about bringing the virus back home to their families and about 80 per cent worried about being exposed to the virus themselves. Over half of the nurses reported concerns about inadequate staffing; over 40 per cent reported concerns about adequate PPE supplies. Almost a quarter (24 per cent) reported being told to work despite a possible or confirmed exposure to the virus, according to the study.

“We found significant associations between nurses’ perceptions of unsafe workplaces and their self-reports of PTSD, anxiety, and depression,” the authors stated.

While the study did not include care aides who make up most of the work force at long-term care facilities, Havaei said it’s highly likely similar reports would come from those workers.

The issue is one that disproportionately affects women, she added. Most nurses are also caregivers to children and aging parents outside of their work environments.

In another ongoing study she’s involved in focusing on the long-term care sector, families with essential visitor status have already observed the stresses on nurses in seniors’ homes, said Havaei.

“They recognize that nurses are stretched. They don’t have time. They’re exhausted.”

Havaei said solving the problems faced by nurses is a long-term issue that involves addressing systemic challenges in the health care sector.

Havaei said one of her next projects with colleague Joanie Sims-Gould will be to examine some of the unintended consequences of B.C.’s implementation of a one-site policy for workers at long-term care facilities.

The order by Dr. Bonnie Henry was put in place during the pandemic to limit the spread of COVID through workers moving between different facilities. But Havaei said there are already anecdotal reports that “this policy has created some challenges”: as staff opted to work in single facilities with more favourable working conditions, it has left some of the long-term care sites perceived as having less favourable working conditions even more short staffed.