Taking the long view on COVID-19
What will the pandemic’s long-term impact be on emergency workers?
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) a global pandemic.
Since that time, it has been a significant stressor for essential workers — including paramedics — that may further increase the prevalence and severity of mental health injuries.
In Canada, there are approximately 28,000 paramedics who serve over 37 million people.
Paramedics assess and treat patients under a wide variety of conditions and transport them to a hospital if necessary. Medical calls can range from routine transport to emergencies to public health crises.
Paramedics often suppress their emotions in order to perform their professional duties and uphold a “higher image” in public.
Prior to the current pandemic, a Canada-wide survey found that paramedics were five times more likely to screen positive for at least one mental health disorder compared to the general population.
Mental health in spotlight
Paramedics have shared to the Canadian Institute for Safety, Wellness and Performance (CIWSP) their high levels of fear, distrust, anxiety and underlying feelings of stigmatization and isolation from their communities as presumed carriers of the COVID-19 virus.
A paramedic manager from Ontario intimated “there is fear of contracting COVID-19 and bringing it home; fear that personal protective equipment (PPE) will not work or that there are not enough supplies. Some members have taken the attitude to take care of themselves as a result of the fear and lack of trust.”
Lessons from previous infectious outbreaks, such as SARS, MERS, Ebola and H1N1 suggest that it is highly likely that many frontline healthcare workers will face mental-health injuries after the outbreak.
Generally, as a result of an emergency public health crisis, paramedic service organizations may face challenges with staffing and service capacity because of absenteeism due to illness, quarantine, anxiety, concern over personal safety or safety of family members, or poorly equipped safety measures.
Prioritizing health, safety
Therefore, it is essential that employers prioritize the health and safety concerns of their workers.
Paramedic service organizations should ensure that effective strategies are in place by developing policies, programs, services and practices designed specifically for public health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
CISWP is leading several scientific studies to inform the development of two CSA standards on work disability management system to address mental health injuries among paramedics, and first responders fatigue risk management.
Our collaborative studies revealed that there are limited resources to support the mental health and wellness of paramedics. More specifically there is a lack of organizational-wide, system focused, evidence-informed and consensus-based tools and guidelines to support employers in preventing and managing the mental health impacts of public health crises.
COVID-19 has shown that we have to be better prepared to empower organizations, regardless of size and sector, by developing and implementing organizational-wide strategies to effectively and quickly mobilize solutions in order to protect the health, safety, and well-being of our workforce.
In addition, we need to be proactive in mitigating the long-term impacts of public health crises on the mental health of our workforce and develop personal and organizational strategies to build resiliency.
Amin Yazdani is the director of the Canadian Institute of Safety, Wellness and Performance at Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ont. His research is assisted by Dr. Marcus Yung and Bronson Du.