Alberta researcher focusing on supporting mental health of health-care workers

A University of Alberta researcher has set a goal of helping the mental health of the province’s health-care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Faculty of Nursing assistant professor Susan Sommerfeldt has received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for two projects she is conducting in partnership with Covenant Health.

The projects are providing Covenant Health staff mindfulness training and an arts-based film project that will document the stories of those coping through the pandemic, with the goal of promoting mental health conversations.

“Health-care workers are quick to encourage people to take care of themselves and have strategies to deal with stress, but they’re not always good at doing it themselves,” Sommerfeldt said.

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“Ultimately this paradox has ramifications for patients in the delivery of health care. It is grounded in how people work together and how they organize their work.”

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Click to play video: 'COVID-19 pandemic stress leading to nurses increasingly asking for help'

2:05 COVID-19 pandemic stress leading to nurses increasingly asking for help

COVID-19 pandemic stress leading to nurses increasingly asking for help

Covenant Health organizational development manager Kerry McKinstry said the provider is participating in the projects because it wants health-care workers to thrive and “fulfill their calling.”

“The health and safety of our patients and residents is at the centre of everything we do,” McKinstry said.

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The physical and mental challenges of the job can elicit difference responses, she said.

“If somebody needs a break from the physical challenges of the job — such as masking, wearing personal protective equipment or facing the imminent threat of breathing in a virus — that’s understood,” Sommerfeldt said.

“But if somebody needs a break from the stress of their workplace, it’s like, ‘You can’t handle this.’ It’s an interesting reality of health-care work.”

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Covenant Health’s 15,000 staff will have the opportunity to receive mindfulness programs from MindWellU, a company that is delivering online training through its Wellness Together Canada initiative in response to the COVID-19 mental health crisis.

Sommerfeldt said one of the techniques staff will learn is “pause” practice, which teaches workers to pause to gather their thoughts, perform breathing exercises and imagery work that can create a drop in blood pressure and physiological changes.

“This sends signals back to your brain that there’s no imminent danger, that you can manage whatever is happening.”

The documentary is intended to illustrate how the pandemic shaped the experiences of volunteers, front-line workers and supply chain staff.

“Hearing it from people who lived it and breathed it over the entire time will be much more impactful than general media reports,” McKinstry said.

“What parts of our workplace culture were sources of strength and what else could we have done as an organization to have made this a better experience?”

Click to play video: 'Canadian Mental Health Association on how Albertans are holding up'

4:53 Canadian Mental Health Association on how Albertans are holding up

Canadian Mental Health Association on how Albertans are holding up

“Redeployment of staff, stigma during hospital outbreaks on a unit, implications of using infectious disease precautions such as social distancing and wearing a mask while trying to give care, the moral tensions of deciding if you go to work with post-nasal drip when you’re pretty sure it’s not COVID — all these social factors became materialized in relation to this non-human actor, the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” Sommerfeldt said.

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Sommerfedlt said she hopes her work will help overcome the stigma of mental health issues amongst health-care workers.

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