Mittal, M., Morgan, A. A., Du, J., Jiang, J., Boekeloo, B., & Fish, J. N. (2022, December 19). “Each week feels like a mountain”: The impact of COVID-19 on mental health providers’ well-being and clinical work. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. Advance online publication.
The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed the health care system worldwide. Stressors on health care workers have included misinformation, rapidly changing knowledge of the virus, the politicization of mask wearing, high transmission rates, and high rates of patients requiring critical care. There has been much written about the impact of the pandemic on physicians and nurses caused by these factors. Much less attention has been paid to the experiences of mental health workers who had to rapidly transition to telehealth, which required immediate adaptations and learning with little training and preparation. In this qualitative study, Mittal and colleagues thematically analyzed text responses of 136 mental health professionals to questions about the impact of telehealth work during the pandemic on mental health and on clinical practice. The mental health professionals were from several disciplines (psychology, social work, counseling), most were women (84%), White (81%), with a mean age of 45.5 years. First, several themes emerged regarding providers’ mental health. Most indicated that their own experiences of exhaustion and stress were mirrored in their patients’ experiences, which made it harder to cope. Another common experience was “Zoom fatigue”, in which seeing clients online was more tiring, less enjoyable, and more isolating. Many also reported a decline in their physical health – that is, they experienced more headaches, trouble sleeping, poor appetite, and eye strain. Some reported a heightened sense of meaning in their work, such as a greater sense of pride and meaning derived from helping people during a particularly troubling time. Second, several themes were identified related to clinical practice. Practicing and living in the same space was particularly challenging for some - practicing from home while being responsible for other members of the household (children) was difficult and distracting. Many reported a decrease in work satisfaction and lower motivation, both of which impacted their level of empathy for and engagement with clients. Some reported positive effects especially related to having more time due to reduced commuting, and a greater sense of empathy for clients who felt isolated themselves.
The COVID-19 pandemic and using telehealth for work required a significant shift in practice for mental health professionals. The shift meant important changes in how we practice and how we live our lives. And so, it is not surprising that mental health professionals’ well-being has been impacted by this transition and the challenges it poses. It is important to recognize the stressors related to telehealth work and to try to mitigate their impact. Some authors have suggested ways of reducing the negative impact of increased screen time on mental health providers, such as: taking breaks whenever possible, including 5 to 10 minutes between sessions; using previous “commute time” for self-care (social connection, physical activity); increasing social and professional connections with planned gatherings; and prioritizing self-care even more, including physical exercise and personal therapy.