Strategies for Health Care Workers to Cope With Daily, Ongoing Stress

June 22, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is raising stress levels for everyone, but perhaps no group has been hit harder than health care workers. And while many people are trying to support our nurses, doctors, and first responders with thank you signs and food donations, the pressures facing health care workers continue to mount as the crisis continues.

Keep Reading To Learn

  • The types of stress experienced by health care workers
  • Tips for coping with different types of stress
  • When to seek help from a mental health professional

Christopher M. Palmer, MD, director of the Department of Postgraduate and Continuing Education at McLean Hospital, agreed that most health care professionals are experiencing increased stress and anxiety due to the pandemic, but not all experiences are the same. “One size doesn’t fit all,” he said. “There are lots of different kinds of health care workers, so we have to put their experiences into different buckets.”

One bucket, Palmer explained, contains health care workers who are completely overwhelmed. “They’re on the front lines, working in emergency rooms, in ICUs, and in the hospitals, dealing directly with COVID patients,” he said. “They’re the ones donning all the protective gear, worrying about whether they’re going to get sick or bring the virus home. They are the ones seeing people struggling for their lives or seeing people die in front of them. It’s a very scary time for them.”

COVID-19 Tips for Frontline Workers

Dr. Blaise Aguirre offers more tips to help mental health professionals and health care workers cope with challenges they are facing during COVID-19.


Other buckets of health care professionals encompass those who are facing less dramatic—but still serious—types of stress. The buckets include health workers who have been laid off or furloughed and those who have seen their responsibilities drastically changed or reduced.

“A lot of us health care workers are suddenly working from home or doing our work by teleconferencing,” he shared. The adjustment to this new way of interacting with coworkers and patients can produce frustration and anxiety.

Other health care workers are suddenly dealing with what millions of people around the world are now facing—the stress of having reduced hours or no job at all. “Unfortunately, there’s another group that has been very idle because elective procedures have been canceled,” Palmer stated. “Some hospital systems are beginning to furlough them and lay them off.”

For these people, financial uncertainty and the struggles of finding new work during a time of high unemployment are causing tremendous stress. Those coping with these issues while also caring for children or parents may feel even more pressure.

Illustrations of health care workers
At McLean, we recognize that everyone, even other health care workers, may need help managing their mental health

Regardless of what bucket you find yourself in, there are steps you can take to deal with daily, ongoing stress. Dr. Palmer offers a few tips for handling stress during the pandemic.

Dealing With the Stress of Facing Sickness and Death Every Day

Basic self-care is of paramount importance—things like getting adequate sleep, eating properly, and carving out some time to relax or do something enjoyable. You should avoid excessive alcohol use or overeating as coping mechanisms. It is also important to be kind and compassionate to yourself. Remind yourself that you are doing the best that you can and that taking care of yourself will help you stay healthy in the long run.

Cope With Working From Home and Dealing With New Systems

It is important to recognize that your routine has been upended and that it is going to take some time to develop a new routine that works for you. Be mindful of how you are spending your time. Prioritize all of the things that you need to get done. If you feel overwhelmed and disorganized, try writing everything down in a list and then create a schedule. Remember that it is a work in progress. By paying attention to this process and refining your schedule and your priorities, you’ll get to a point where you feel more empowered to get everything done that you have prioritized.

Confronting Fears and Anxiety of Unemployment

Being out of work is a very stressful and challenging situation. Recognize that you now have a lot of work to do and make a plan to get it done. Two priorities are adjusting your household budget to ride out this period of unemployment and finding a new job. Submit a specific number of applications each week. More importantly, it is important to network. Reach out to friends and family and even old coworkers or high school friends. Let them all know that you are looking for a new job. Some may have leads for you and will be able to put in a good word.

Knowing When to Seek Help From Mental Health Professionals

There are many signs of problems. Some of the big ones are feeling depressed and beginning to give up your fight. If you feel like you are losing energy and motivation and that your efforts to help yourself aren’t working, you might be developing clinical depression. If you can’t stop worrying and ruminating about your troubles, that’s a worrisome sign. If your sleep has been impacted, either by too little sleep or too much sleep, that’s also a warning sign. In the end, if you feel that you are not able to manage your life right now or if things are feeling increasingly hopeless, consider professional help.

If you or a loved one is struggling to manage anxiety or stress during these difficult times, McLean Hospital is here to help. Call us now at 877.646.5272 to learn more about treatment for depression, stress, or anxiety.