Helping health care workers deal with pandemic-induced stress

August 18, 2020

As health care workers continue supporting their communities during this difficult time, it is critical for employers to support their needs.

Today, it’s estimated that more than 18 million health care workers are employed in the U.S., according to the CDC. Since the onslaught of the pandemic, this group has worked tirelessly to fight COVID-19 through extended shifts, limited staff, and obvious health concerns for both themselves and their families. This, coupled with the current economic volatility impacting our country, has led more health care workers to experience heightened stress than ever before.

In fact, according to MetLife’s new report on health care industry benefits and workforce trends, approximately three out of four health care workers (72 percent) are feeling more stressed in the wake of the pandemic, with burnout rates also notably on the rise. In fact, 64 percent of health care employers ranked employee burnout as one of their leading work-related challenges or concerns this year, compared to just 51 percent in 2019.

Further adding to health care workers’ stress is the fact that only 39 percent feel their employer has had their best interests in mind this year by prioritizing their overall well-being (down from 50 percent in 2019) – which is notable, given that most health care workers (79 percent) also believe their employer has a responsibility to support their health and well-being.

As health care workers continue to rise to the challenge of supporting their communities during this difficult time, it is critical for employers to support their needs. In addition to helping these workers balance patient care with their own health and well-being, identifying ways to boost employees’ financial wellness and help to reduce their stress can not only improve health care workers’ overall well-being, but also increase their engagement and productivity at work.

Here are a few tips for health care employers looking to get started:

Focus on Employees’ Holistic Well-Being.

The health care industry has long wrestled with the challenges of helping employees stay holistically – or at the same time physically, mentally, financially, and socially – well against the backdrop of a demanding work environment. This is even truer today amid the pandemic, wherein work demands and health concerns are compounded by workers’ concerns around their finances and an unstable economy. In fact, the report found that more than half of employees (53 percent) are more concerned about their finances now than they were prior to the pandemic, with only 45 percent saying they’re confident in their finances (down from 57 percent in 2019).

Holistically well employees are significantly less likely to be burned out or stressed. With this in mind, it has become vital for health care employers to offer comprehensive support for their staff across all aspects of their well-being, with programs that address physical, financial, social and – of course – emotional pressure points.

Financial education and planning benefits, for instance, can add a layer of protection to health insurance and can soften the financial impact of the pandemic, thus easing employees’ overall stress during this unstable time. Similarly, health care employees have said increased paid time off, work from home policies, and flexible hours and schedules are the stress-reducing benefits that can best support them during the pandemic. These comprehensive offerings together provide for more holistic support, helping to curb employee stress and make them feel more engaged and supported.

Offer Tailored Programs.

While many of today’s pain points for health care employees are the same, not all concerns fall equally. For instance, female workers are less likely to feel mentally, financially, and physically healthy compared to their male colleagues, the report found, with only 33 percent of women in health care reporting feeling holistically well, compared to 47 percent of men. Additionally, for those health care professionals still carrying educational debt, the need for disability payments to cover student loans may be considered a bigger “must have” than for those who aren’t carrying debt.

These differences in need emphasize the importance of taking a tailored approach to benefits. Through comprehensive offerings – from emerging benefits like phased-retirement programs to disability insurance, mental wellness programs and employee assistance programs (EAPs) like emergency hardship assistance – health care workers are better prepared to take charge of their well-being, and that of their families.

Communication is Key.

While identifying the right benefits to support your employees’ needs is a great first step, communicating those benefits effectively is also an important component of the process. That’s because ensuring that health care employees understand their benefits has been proven to boost their wellness. In fact, 41 percent of health care employees who understand their benefits say they are holistically well, compared to just 15 percent of employees who don’t understand their benefits. Additionally, health care employees who understand their benefits are more likely to feel valued than health care employees who don’t understand their benefits: 67 percent compared to 39 percent.

As we approach open enrollment season this fall, clear and consistent communication that helps employees take advantage of the benefits offered to them will become even more important. This communication could be as simple as providing weekly emails with enrollment tips or hosting a quick Q&A session that overviews the offerings that your company provides.

Health care workers have demonstrated immense selflessness and strength throughout the COVID-19 crisis and helping them cope with the increased stressors that accompany these new challenges and responsibilities can demonstrate that their employer cares about their well-being and is attuned to their changing needs. Finding the right benefits offerings, and communicating those offerings effectively, can help employees focus less on their financial and mental burdens, and more on serving the patients who rely on them every day.

The data cited in this article are from a report based on MetLife’s 18th annual U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study (EBTS).

Heaney is senior vice president, Group Benefits for MetLife.