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Health workers share their stress from the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic



An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the percentage of health professionals in the study who said their mental health was negatively impacted by worry or stress related to covid-19. The correct result is 62 percent, not 61 percent. The story is corrected.

Worry, exhaustion, ever-changing safety rules, and long hours of personal protective equipment are just a few things that America’s healthcare professionals cite as the hardest parts of working on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

Their work has saved countless lives, but has also taken a personal toll: 62 percent say worry or stress related to covid-1

9 has had a negative impact on their mental health. A majority of 55 percent feel “burned out” at work. Nearly half of all health care workers say that worry or stress has caused them to have trouble sleeping or sleeping too much.

Washington Post-Kaiser

Family Foundation poll

6 out of 10 healthcare professionals say that their mental health suffered from coronavirus

Question: Do you feel that worry or stress related to covid-19 has had a negative impact on your mental health or not?

Percent who say covid-19 has had one

negative impact on mental health

Health care

workers

Overall

Source: Post-KFF survey of 1,327 U.S. health workers from February 11 to March 7, 2021 with a margin of error of +/- 3.5 percentage points. Error margins higher among subgroups.

Washington Post-Kaiser family

Basic voting

6 out of 10 healthcare professionals say that their mental health suffered from coronavirus

Question: Do you feel that worry or stress related to covid-19 has had a negative impact on your mental health or not?

Percent who say covid-19 has had one

negative impact on mental health

Health care

workers in general

Source: Post-KFF survey of 1,327 U.S. health workers from February 11 to March 7, 2021 with a margin of error of +/- 3.5 percentage points. Error margins higher among subgroups.

Vote on Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation

6 out of 10 healthcare professionals say that their mental health suffered from coronavirus

Question: Do you feel that worry or stress related to covid-19 has had a negative impact on your mental health or not?

Percent who say covid-19 has had a negative impact

on mental health

Health care

workers in general

Source: Post-KFF survey of 1,327 U.S. health workers from February 11 to March 7, 2021 with a margin of error of +/- 3.5 percentage points. Error margins higher among subgroups.

Vote on Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation

6 out of 10 healthcare professionals say that their mental health suffered from coronavirus

Question: Do you feel that worry or stress related to covid-19 has had a negative impact on your mental health or not?

Percent who say covid-19 has had a negative impact

on mental health

Health care

workers in general

Source: Post-KFF survey of 1,327 U.S. health workers from February 11 to March 7, 2021 with a margin of error of +/- 3.5 percentage points. Error margins higher among subgroups.

A nationwide poll by the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation asked more than 1,300 frontline health workers to describe the hardest part of the work during the pandemic in their own words.

Top of the list was fear of infection for themselves, their family members or patients, mentioned by 21 percent of healthcare professionals.

Another 16 percent said wearing PPE was the hardest part of the work during the pandemic. Some cited discomfort and overheating by wearing masks and other protective equipment throughout their work day, while others said masks impair the personal connections they seek when working with patients.

New and changing rules and safety protocols were also high on the list of challenges, with 8 percent saying these were the hardest part of going to work during the pandemic. Many cited frustration over the rules themselves as well as challenges in getting patients and others to follow them.

Another 7 percent said overtime was the hardest part of working during the pandemic, with many feeling exhausted as they put in extra hours, covered by sick colleagues and coping with limited resources and dying patients. The survey found that 56 percent of hospital workers said their workplace reached overcapacity for ICU beds or places to treat critically ill patients at some point during the pandemic.

Five percent of health care workers said their most difficult challenge was seeing patients who were isolated from visitors or family because of safety precautions. Most healthcare professionals said they provided direct treatment to covid-19 patients, and a quarter of all healthcare professionals had at least one patient who died of the disease.

The post-KFF poll showed that working during the pandemic was particularly stressful for younger health workers. Among those under 30, 75 percent say coronavirus-related anxiety or stress had a negative impact on their mental health, as did 71 percent of health workers in their 30s, a figure that dropped to 40 percent among health workers aged 65 and older .

Almost 7 out of 10 health workers aged 18-29 and about 6 out of 10 of these ages 30-39 feel burnt out at work, compared to less than half aged 50 years and over.

Even before the pandemic, experts had become more and more concerned about the problem of burnout in healthcare professionals, including symptoms such as emotional exhaustion, cynicism, loss of enthusiasm and joy in their work, and increased detachment from their patients and their ailments. Studies have shown that burnout among healthcare workers often results in increased risks for patients, malpractice requirements, absenteeism from workers and revenue, as well as losses of billions of dollars in the medical industry each year.

Despite the enormous stress they have borne through the pandemic, the study finds that most health care workers also feel positive about going to work. 76 percent of the majority say they feel “hopeful” when they go to work these days, while 67 percent feel “optimistic” and 63 percent feel “motivated.” Even among health professionals who say their mental health has been hurt by the pandemic, most say they also feel hopeful, optimistic and motivated.

Washington Post-Kaiser

Family Foundation poll

Most health workers feel hopeful and motivated to go to work, but also burnt out

Question: Would you say you feel _____ about going to work these days or not?

Percentage of healthcare professionals

says “yes” to each

Source: Post-KFF survey of 1,327 U.S. health workers from February 11 to March 7, 2021 with a margin of error of +/- 3.5 percentage points.

Washington Post-Kaiser family

Basic voting

Most health workers feel hopeful and motivated to go to work, but also burnt out

Question: Would you say you feel _____ about going to work these days or not?

Percentage of health professionals who say

“yes” for each

Source: Post-KFF survey of 1,327 U.S. health workers from February 11 to March 7, 2021 with a margin of error of +/- 3.5 percentage points.

Vote on Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation

Most health workers feel hopeful and motivated to go to work, but also burnt out

Question: Would you say you feel _____ about going to work these days or not?

Percentage of healthcare professionals who say “yes” to each

Source: Post-KFF survey of 1,327 U.S. health workers from February 11 to March 7, 2021 with a margin of error of +/- 3.5 percentage points.

Vote on Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation

Most health workers feel hopeful and motivated to go to work, but also burnt out

Question: Would you say you feel _____ about going to work these days or not?

Percentage of healthcare professionals who say “yes” to each

Source: Post-KFF survey of 1,327 U.S. health workers from February 11 to March 7, 2021 with a margin of error of +/- 3.5 percentage points.

Emily Guskin, Lucio Villa, Naema Ahmed and William Wan contributed to this report.

About the vote

The Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation Survey Project is a partnership that combines investigative research and reporting to better inform the public. That Frontline Health Care Workers Survey is the 35th in the series. It was conducted in English and Spanish from February 11 to March 7, 2021 among 2,298 adults 18 and older, including a sample of 1,327 health workers living in the United States. Frontline healthcare professionals were defined as those working in a healthcare setting in direct contact with patients or their body fluids, which is broadly consistent with the type of healthcare professionals prioritized in the initial phase of coronavirus vaccinations. The survey was conducted online and by telephone, where the majority of the total sample was taken from the SSRS Opinion Panel and the Ipsos KnowledgePanel, which are probability-based panels recruited through a random sample of US households. A small percentage of interviews were conducted by re-contacting respondents who identified themselves as health professionals in the latest polls by SSRS and KFF. The combined landline, cell phone, and web samples were weighted to match demographic distributions of the U.S. population and the adult population in health care. Demographic benchmarks for health professionals were derived from an analysis of SSRS and KFF national surveys from December 2020 and January 2021. The sample for the general population was weighted in accordance with the American Community Survey from 2019 and the National Health Interview Survey. The results among the sample of the total population of American adults have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points, and the margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points among the sample of health care workers. Sampling, data collection, weighting and tabulation were managed by SSRS in collaboration with The Post and KFF researchers. The project group from KFF consisted of Mollyann Brodie, Ashley Kirzinger, Audrey Kearney and Liz Hamel. The research team from The Post consisted of Scott Clement and Emily Guskin.


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