Responding to COVID-19: Deakin University research reveals impact on healthcare workers

As the world became more and more chaotic due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, Deakin’s Institute for Health Transformation was hard at work undertaking research investigating how the global pandemic is impacting people working on the frontline.

Little was known about the psychological impact of COVID‐19 on Australian healthcare workers, so researchers set out to explore how doctors, nurses, midwives and allied health workers who had direct contact with patients – including people diagnosed with COVID-19 – were coping with significant professional upheaval.

The results, say researcher Dr Sara Holton, provide valuable insights into how healthcare workers in hospital settings can be best supported during the pandemic and future outbreaks of infectious diseases.

Conducting research in healthcare during the pandemic

Before the pandemic, Deakin University’s Institute for Health Transformation focused its multidisciplinary health system research on everything from population health and wellbeing to designing smarter technology and building safe and secure communities. One of the unique aspects of the institute is its partnership with major health services in Melbourne.

‘Our research is designed to help the health service – it's hospital-based research,’ Dr Holton says. ‘I'm particularly interested in learning about chronic health conditions and women’s reproductive experiences.’

When COVID-19 hit, Dr Holton says researchers switched focus to examine the effects of the pandemic on healthcare workers. ‘Our research examined how COVID-19 impacts their personal and work life. This includes the challenges of juggling children at home doing remote learning and managing work, pregnant staff members’ concerns about working in hospital environments and how PPE affects the ability of healthcare workers to provide patient care.’

One especially significant piece of research published in Australian Health Review assessed the psychological wellbeing of clinical staff at Western Health, which manages three hospitals in Melbourne’s west. The large study revealed a considerable proportion of staff have experienced psychological distress during the pandemic – particularly nurses and midwives.

Identifying the impact COVID-19 has had on healthcare workers

‘In our research, 23% of nurses, midwives, doctors and allied health staff reported mild to severe symptoms of depression,’ Dr Holton says. ‘Nurses and midwives reported significantly higher anxiety scores than doctors, as did people in direct contact with people with a COVID-19 diagnosis.’

She says this health services research indicates the substantial impact of the pandemic on the lives of healthcare workers. ‘It's likely to have impacted both their wellbeing and their work and personal lives,’ Dr Holton says. ‘Many of them had concerns about their own health as well as the risks their work posed to their families, friends and colleagues.’

Thankfully, there were some positive experiences. The employees reported learning more about infectious diseases and infection control, and ‘many of them also said it brought them more together as a team’, says Dr Holton.

Implementing wellbeing support

The study offers an important takeaway message: healthcare workers who had more confidence in Western Health’s pandemic response and staff support strategies were less likely to be affected by mental health issues.

‘Our findings show that staff – especially nurses and midwives – would really benefit from targeted initiatives and support that address social, personal and health concerns during the current and future outbreaks of infectious diseases,’ Dr Holton says.

There are also benefits for employers. ‘From the health services’ perspective, if staff aren't feeling psychologically well or they're taking lots of leave because they're concerned about coming to work, or they're resigning because they're worried about getting infected, the health service can't run the hospital and provide high-quality patient care,’ Dr Holton says.

Western Health implemented a program of wellbeing and support initiatives for its workers – which the team at Deakin’s Institute for Health Transformation is investigating as part of its ongoing pandemic research.

‘Western Health did a whole range of things – they had wellness hubs in each hospital site that are like breakout rooms, arranged for on-site counsellors, had regular staff bulletins and arranged CEO briefings,’ Dr Holton says. ‘We're evaluating those to see what worked well, what didn't work well and what things might be continued.’

Looking ahead, Deakin’s Institute for Health Transformation is working on an expanded suite of COVID-19 research projects, including studying the psychological impact of COVID-19 on recovered patients, the benefits of telehealth, the effects on staff returning to work after parental leave during the pandemic and how nursing and midwifery students have managed coursework and disrupted placements. The institute is also examining the experiences of nursing and midwifery educators who had to deliver and adapt existing education programs as well as provide COVID-19 specific education and training during the pandemic.

To learn more about how Deakin’s Institute for Health Transformation is generating new knowledge and supporting evidence-based decision making in health services, check out the team’s latest research findings.