April 28th is World Day for Safety & Health at Work. Notably, the Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012–2022 has “mental health conditions” and “occupational lung injuries” as two of their six priority areas. With the extreme contagiousness of COVID-19 as well as the physical and mental stress of managing large volumes of critically ill patients with the illness, healthcare workers of all types have been in a worldwide war against the virus and accordingly have endured their own personal suffering. Yet, the safety and well-being of the healthcare workforce is critical to the safety and well-being of the population at large.
“A positive safety culture is proactive, as well as reactive“
A recent study identified risks factors for harm to healthcare workers during the pandemic: concurrent other illness, female gender, worries about one’s family, anxiety about contracting COVID-19, lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), and close contact with COVID-19. Indeed, other studies have shown how the lack of PPE has resulted in numerous deaths of physicians, nurses, and chaplains. Healthcare workers who view their PPE as inadequate have higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress, and are potentially putting their lives at risk. Building a positive safety culture requires the provision of robust safety equipment to healthcare staff.
Overall, a positive safety culture in the workplace is proactive, as well as reactive. According to Australian Journal of General Practice, “opportunistic screening” for mental health issues among healthcare workers is vital during pandemics like COVID-19. This is because these workers are more vulnerable to mental health issues (including suicide and self-harm) than the general population. While there can be stigma attached to the idea of a healthcare worker seeking help for mental or physical ailments, having their own GP is essential, rather than covert self-treatment. Registration and licensing boards should take a realistic and compassionate approach to any needed work restrictions.
Promoting a positive safety culture in clinical settings, Department Heads and supervisors should have heightened awareness to their staff with an alertness to the need for their safety and wellness. This attitude and associated behaviours are needed during pandemics, but even beyond in the non-COVID context. Proactive considerations include staffing rosters that allow proper rest; healthy food and hydration provisions during shifts; break rooms that are quiet zones with soothing lighting and ambiance; health and dignity benefits such as on-site haircuts, massages, and manicures; as well as on-site pet therapy, and pastoral care for spiritual wellness. Additional resources are noted below.
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Workplace Safety Culture Resources:
Katrina A. Bramstedt, PhD Head of Advisory, Your Call