Coronavirus: New research underway to screen for stress, burnout in Nova Scotia health-care workers

As the novel coronavirus pandemic sweeps Nova Scotia, a team of researchers is developing a screening tool to identify burnout in health-care workers tackling the crisis on the front lines.

It will likely take the form of an online survey or smartphone survey application, whose questions will help workers take their mental health “temperature” and connect them with support if they’re found to be at risk of burnout.

Debra Gilin, an industrial and occupational psychologist at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, is among the lead researchers on a new project that aims to reduce burnout in health-care workers.
Debra Gilin, an industrial and occupational psychologist at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, is among the lead researchers on a new project that aims to reduce burnout in health-care workers. Elizabeth McSheffrey/Global News

The idea, explained lead researcher Debra Gilin, is to identify the problem early and stop it before it happens.

“This is likely to be truly a marathon rather than a sprint in Nova Scotia,” said the Saint Mary’s University psychology professor. “People need to stay well and stay strong themselves.”

READ MORE: Nova Scotia’s 1st wave of coronavirus almost over, but province won’t relax restrictions yet — Strang

The project is among many new pandemic response initiatives funded by the Nova Scotia COVID-19 Health Coalition, which consists of the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA), Research Nova Scotia and a handful of local universities and hospital foundations.

Its researchers are gathering job burnout data from health workers now, with the goal of developing a series of questions that will accurately predict elevated burnout.

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That will help both employers and employees find the support they need to care for themselves, said Gilin.

“We want to preserve those important front-line workers, their well-being, their families’ well-being,” she told Global News.

“So they’ll often ask questions like how frequently you’re unable to sleep, how frequently you’re unable to turn your mind off at the end of the workday, feeling nervous, jittery, anxious — or the opposite side of that, which is you’re feeling low energy and you’re having trouble getting up to get things done.”

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Nova Scotia is nearing the end of its first wave of COVID-19, but the strain on health-care workers will continue for months to come.

Not only are they dealing with the virus itself, said the NSHA’s Colin Stevenson, but the weight of recent tragedies that have struck Nova Scotia.

“When we think about that being the starting point,” he said, “We’ve got many situations where we’ve introduced our staff to maybe a new location of work, a new job they have to do, because they’ve been shifted or moved to help support a particular care environment for COVID. … All of those changes in work situations, we recognize can be extremely demanding.”

Since the start of the pandemic, the NSHA has expanded its mental health support for staff, publishing a weekly newsletter of resources available, including resilience workshops and grief sessions.

It has also launched a new program that helps workers cope with their individual challenges during the crisis, one-on-one or in a group.

Stevenson, vice-president of health services, quality and system performance, said the NSHA acted early to avoid burnout among staff by cancelling many of its services and redirecting those workers to help with the pandemic response.

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He said he would welcome any new tool to support them further.

“There still is a stigma associated with accessing mental health services and really it’s only by talking about our own experiences, promoting it and providing easy access and many ways for people to access that hopefully we’ll encourage and support our staff to do more of that.”

The new burnout screening tool, called “COVID Pulse”, is expected to be available for employers and staff by June.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

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