After two difficult years dealing with the pandemic, healthcare workers continue to work in vain and are increasingly stressed about what the future holds.
In the New Year, a largely unmasked nation will celebrate the return to near-normality with countless rallies and gatherings in towns and villages across the country.
Families will travel on interstate vacations, restaurants will swell with reservations, and crowds will return to stadium tours. But for our frontline workers, the reality is different.
With infected cases crushing hospitals in vaccinated countries overseas, Australian healthcare workers are worried about what the future holds.
“We’re seeing what’s happening over in Europe, where they’ve become the eye of the epicentre again. If it does ramp up here, it’s going to be extremely challenging, putting even more burden on everyone in the healthcare system,” says Tim Stewart, a pathology courier based in Victoria.
For almost two years now, Mr Stewart has collected Covid tests from public health facilities around Victoria and delivered them to pathology labs for testing. Even today, “first level” exhibition sites trigger a wave of tests. Mr. Stewart and his colleagues work all night to collect and deliver samples.
Her husband, Jon, is a general practitioner working at a clinic that became a large respiratory centre in February of last year, taking thousands of Covid-19 swabs, vaccinating thousands of people and performing respiratory assessments on sick patients.
“So, we’re both on the front line. We’ve tried to remain very positive all the way through it,” Mr Stewart says. “But it’s been exhausting. We’re both fatigued, just exhausted. Jon, in particular, has been doing six and seven days [a week] for the last six months.”
During the worst coronavirus surge in Victoria, the couple lived in isolation for three months – something they deemed necessary to protect themselves and their patients
“Initially, we thought it was surface-based, so we were just so paranoid everywhere we went, washing hands, sanitising, obviously using PPE. I had a paper towel everywhere I went to use the lift, open and close doors, or even fridges to get pathology.
Jon’s clinic, they kept running out of PPE in the initial phase,” Mr Stewart says. “But I don’t think people understand the pressures that healthcare workers have lived through. They just don’t understand it. You can just tell – they sort of brush it aside.”
Last year, Australia’s health workers were hailed as Australia’s frontline heroes. But more recently, the same public has been among those protesting against masks and vaccines.
“I hate to say it, but it’s difficult having to deal with so many, I’ll say, entitled, self-centred, ‘me, me, me’ sort of people,” Mr Stewart says. “But, again, we look at the positives. Jon has had conversations with a number of anti-vaxxers lately, and, in a number of cases, after about a 20-minute conversation, they book in for a vaccination that day.”
Dr. Ken Wong is a bariatric surgeon working in Sydney. He hopes we are seeing an end to the tension around public health orders and recommendations.
When the pandemic first broke out in Sydney, Dr. Wong worked 12 hours a day in the operating room, wearing makeshift PPE.
“That was a physically and mentally draining time,” he says. “There was great anxiety, fear and feeling of vulnerability that every patient that came through the door potentially could be giving you a killer virus, so to speak, and that could be the end of you.”
During the height of Sydney’s lockdown, elective surgeries were halted and the hospital he worked at split the workforce into two teams working separate weeks. The idea was that if a group was infected with Covid or needed to be isolated, there would still be staff available to keep the hospital and clinics running.
“Since the lockdown lifted, we’ve resumed back to all staff coming on, but there’s always a fear at the back of our minds that an outbreak could happen. When we’re doing an operation, there are at least 10 people in the room. So, if someone suddenly tested Covid positive, the entire team of 10 people is going to be off,” he says.
“We don’t feel it’s all over, but at least there’s a reprieve right now,” Dr Wong says. “There’s this sort of low level of stress and anxiety. We sort of have at the back of our head, an anticipation, there is going to be a next spike of Covid because that’s what we’ve seen overseas.”
With the intensity of the pandemic decreased, underlying stress simmers.
No longer running on adrenaline, healthcare workers are faced with how their working lives are forever changed.
“We are resigned to the situation, and therefore we just feel we just have to carry on and hope for the best,” Dr Wong says.
Even before the pandemic, medical professionals worked long hours and were more prone to psychological distress. So unrestrained, the Black Dog Institute and the Australian Medical Association have delivered programs and resources specifically focused on supporting the health and well-being of doctors and medical students across Australia.
Dr. Sarah Tedjasukmana a Sydney GP, says healthcare professionals feel torn between their responsibility to help patients and take care of themselves at the same time.
“I think finding time for yourself is a whole other job in itself. And we’re having enough trouble getting our patients in with psychologists at the moment,” she says. “They’re booked out for months because of what we’ve just gone through at a societal level. So it is difficult for people to seek formal help if they want it.”
He worries that the toll of the pandemic on national health workers will unfold long after the coronavirus has become tamed.
“Looking around at friends and colleagues, the medical community is really feeling it. All this extra-governmental stress, working out the rollout of vaccines, how to safely look after patients. There is so much that we deal with in this job anyway, but dealing with all of this added pandemic stuff on an everyday basis, is really hard,” she says. “We’re going to be the generation that went through the virus. And I don’t know what that’s going to look like.”
Dr. Grant Blashki is a general practitioner and clinical manager at Beyond Blue. While there are no easy fixes, he says the nation’s healthcare workforce will benefit from public respect and support in the coming months.
“If you or your family find yourself needing help from the health system for Covid management, treat the health workers with respect and kindness, remembering it’s their professional commitment and compassion for the community which gets them to work every day,” he says.
Australian Healthcare Workforce.
Australian healthcare workers are under tremendous pressure and stressed. They often experience severe mental health problems. The issue of fatigue in the healthcare sector is not limited to one industry. Instead, it affects almost all sectors of society. Those in the health industry are particularly susceptible to psychological stress.
If they are not properly supported, they may be less likely to perform their jobs well. The problem is not limited to the healthcare sector, however.