Taking Care of Mental Health in the Aged Care Workforce: Beyond the Physical
Even in times of peace, the aged care profession presents a daunting undertaking that requires the utmost strength of its workers. Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has exacerbated the stresses that innately comes with providing quality aged care to residents. Mental health in the aged care workforce has taken a huge hit in the past year.
A virus-driven pandemic has necessitated the upscaling of physical protective efforts; such as in the increased requirement of personal protective equipment use among relevant staff members. This has ensured more safety in the workplace, keeping workers accountable for their health and hygiene.
But the effects of COVID-19 are not just physical, as we already likely realise. Mental and emotional pressures stemming from the implications of the virus can take their toll on workers if left unchecked. Below are common causes and recommendations for taking care of mental health in the aged care workforce; for the perusal of both managers and workers.
Causes and types of mental health concerns among aged care staff
It’s important to recognise the root cause of depreciating mental health in the aged care workforce. Can the cause really be chalked up to just the broad category of “the corona”? Or will getting at a solution require a more nuanced and specific answer to the reasons behind new and rising mental health concerns?
There’s only one right answer for the responsible aged care provider. Of course, the coronavirus has changed many things for aged care staff. There are now new ways of working and new pressures of coping with changing restrictions. But determining exactly the added adversities facing aged care workers is tantamount to taking care of their mental health properly and holistically.
Below, we list out some of the most prominent causes and types of mental health concerns that adversely affect aged care workers to continuously increasing extents since the pandemic ensued.
Even if your facility has been blessed so far with the lack of a COVID-19 breakout, you must have had to step up efforts in multiple areas to ensure the prevention of one. Should the virus be contracted in the premises, you will be much busier. From then on, the facility and all its staff members will have had to remain on high alert.
It is obvious that the pandemic has not just had personal and individual effects on people, of all walks of life. Implementing more safety precautions is a very simplified way of phrasing what in reality is a tonne more work for the already overstretched aged care worker; further impacting mental health in the aged care workforce.
Other than physically preparing the facility with better preventative measures, staff might have had to take extra shifts. This is to accommodate restricted headcount allowances in the facility per day. This may mean covering more patients per shift or taking more shifts in a week. More back to back shifts may be part of the new reality as well.
If a colleague is away or unwell, there are more procedures in place that thereafter need to be actualised now as compared to in the past. Implementing precautions is not just a physically arduous task, but a mentally draining one that demands 24/7 meticulousness from staff. This is especially since the health and safety of both their residents and peers rests in the preservative efforts upheld by utmost diligence and devotion.
For the dedicated aged care worker, it may also be trying that such added procedures take away from their ability to provide the best service possible to their residents. When so many things at once demand their attention, service quality might be the unfortunate collateral that takes a hit. More so for those who juggle multiple jobs in the aged care industry, which is common in this line of work. This can prove to be demoralising and cultivate a work environment that staff no longer feel proud of.
When stacked up together, these new stressors can contribute to an overwhelming working experience that will eventually take its toll on mental health in the aged care workforce. Without the proper management strategies, these workload increments will prove to be detrimental for the wellbeing of aged care staff.
Anxiety about the future
Needless to say, deteriorating mental health in the aged care workforce is partly caused by a good heap of anxiety about the future, whether it’s about the possibilities for socialising or job security concerns. Of course, these worries apply beyond aged care homes, but within the facilities themselves both staff and residents are likely to experience these apprehensions more acutely.
One needs to simply envision how isolating residents’ rooms can be in an aged care facility to understand how miserable it can make the aged care experience while stringent visitor restrictions are in play. For staff members who are deeply invested in the welfare of their residents, this is equally distressing.
To make matters worse, aged care staff on the ground are the points of direct contact with residents, implementing all the regulations demanded from authorities in response to the pandemic. To play the role of messenger in such a fretful situation leaves them still unfortunately shot with guilt.
Aged care workers must contend not just with residents’ fears, but their own as well. Job security in most sectors has been widely affected by declining economies all around the world. Even essential workers like aged care staff will have their own doubts about their future stability while they take on more responsibility in the same role. These stressors will undoubtedly put a noticeable strain on mental health in the aged care workforce.
Stressors on personal life
We would be remiss not to remember that the committed staff of the aged care industry have their own families and loved ones for whose welfare they are also concerned. Even as they are out doing their best to provide as good a service as is possible to their beloved residents, it is nearly impossible to compartmentalise their worry for their loved ones while at work. Especially in such an all-encompassing period of uncertainty.
The aged care worker’s role is an innately giving one. What might a clear pitfall of that then be? We must realise that the worker who keeps on giving might end up compromising their own health, especially in terms of mental stability. This happens when their concern is spent solely on the people who they are responsible for. As a result of that, what may arise is a thoroughly exhausted staff member way too overwhelmed to think about themselves, thus causing rapidly deteriorating mental health in the aged care workforce.
With all these mental health concerns, only those managers and workers equipped with adequate resources can manage stress and anxiety in such a difficult time. Compiled below are some such tips to bring that to life.
Mental health tips for aged care managers
Managers and those in supervisory positions are in the most crucial positions to improve mental health in the aged care workforce. It is important to understand what responsibilities they have; while at the same time learning how to protect their own headspace lest they fester under all the pressure.
One of the most crucial approaches to developing a team culture given such stressful precedents is to adopt open communication. This includes providing ample opportunities for workers to ask plenty of probing questions especially regarding updated role expectations and work styles that will come into play in the new COVID normal.
By setting priorities in the midst of a changing regulatory environment, workers can proceed with more confidence. This may help ease some of the uncertainties likely weighing on their minds.
An avenue for staff suggestions and complaints should also be developed. This can ensure that everyone in the team is on the same page about evolving restrictions. You can discuss task allocations; in which, those who feel they are unable to cope with certain things can speak up. Managers may choose to do this through forums or regular meetings. You must treat these concerns seriously and collaboratively solve them wherever possible.
Team communication has never been more important. Managers must cultivate a supportive environment where there is no fear to speak up. Otherwise, they will suffer in silence which will impact both them and the team in the long run. It would be helpful if someone in a leadership position were to offer their own struggles first. This can be a symbol of destigmatising mental health issues and to humanise their efforts.
Staff needs to know that taking leave for the sake of their mental well-being is perfectly acceptable. It also comes with no professional repercussions or risk of embarrassment. In fact, part of each handover process should be a mental health check-in, to further establish the importance of handling the stress and anxiety they may have experienced throughout the workday.
Look out for signs of declining mental health in the aged care workforce
Nonetheless, managers will find it harder to step in if workers choose not to speak up about their mental stress. It then falls again on leaders to be aware of signs of workers’ deteriorating mental states and be proactive about taking the first step forward if they notice anything amiss in their team.
This can include checking more thoroughly the reasons behind a staff member’s sudden increase in leave application. Given the global context, there is a high chance that these spikes happen because of reasons along the lines of fear of coming to work or guilt for inadvertently catching the virus. Reminding workers no one is interested in playing the blame game is important. Instead, communal health and safety is the goal.
Managers have feelings too
At the end of the day, you cannot take care of others if you’re not taking care of yourself. Those in leadership positions can feel mounds of pressure in such situations, especially since we just spent the past six paragraphs illuminating how everything falls on their shoulders to keep their teammates sane. But we’re also here to remind leaders: lead the way by example.
The next section is presented as recommendations for workers, but it’s basically self-care tips that get you to be more accountable for your own mental health, rather than relying solely on the watchful eye of superiors to predict a breakdown. That said, managers, the next bit’s for you too.
Mental health tips for aged care workers
With the added work in the aged care industry, there is more to do. As a worker, it might be tempting to take on more than you can handle to not appear lazy in front of your employers.
Well, we have a public service announcement for all aged care workers: your bosses are human too. They are also going through this pandemic alongside you; and they know how much the pandemic has affected mental health in the aged care workforce.
Know that it’s okay not to be okay
Aged care workers have a strong constitution; which can be attested by the hardworking individuals making up the workforce. However, recognising that the pandemic is taking its toll on one’s mental health is not an admission of weakness. Rather, it is one of strength. Letting yourself succumb to worry in the face of a dismal viral pandemic is human nature. It is also the first step to taking better care of yourself.
From there, it follows that you should not be ashamed to take time off for yourself. This includes staying in touch with your support system and checking in with loved ones regularly. Don’t leave out your colleagues as well; in these times above all others, we’re all in this together.
Develop healthy coping mechanisms
It has never been more important to cultivate good habits rather than rely on vices to get through these difficult times. While it might be tempting to binge eat or drink more alcohol out of stress; they are usually solutions that provide instant gratification at the cost of long-term health. If you find yourself succumbing to unhealthy urges, reach out to trusted individuals or organisations.
Protect your mental health with accurate information
With the influx of updates from multitudinous sources, remember to fact check. It will do wonders for your peace of mind and is more likely to keep you from spiralling with worry. Where you know you have received accurate information, process it calmly and let go of things beyond your control.
Aged care work comes with the added stressor of assuaging residents’ fears too. And, you’ll find that task hard if you are beside yourself with anxiety.
Mental health in the aged care workforce is no easy topic to discuss. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the very real fears we all have.
Being there for yourself and others is a crucial starting point to improving mental stability among aged care staff and beyond. When in doubt, treating everyone with kindness (including yourself!) will always do the trick. To leave you with a final tip, remember to keep yourself well hydrated, and take care!
About the author
Other than for work, Marielle loves writing for fun (fantasy fiction is her not-so-secret mistress). She is also an intense Broadway and Disney geek and sometimes sings professionallyBack to the Zipline Blog.