Burned-out workers from health care system now make up majority of counsellor’s clients

A Saint John-based counsellor says the number of health-care workers seeking mental health help is on the rise.

As staffing pressures increase in the field, and with the extra stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, Katina Feggos of Family Plus told Information Morning Saint John that health-care workers are now making up a majority of her clients.

“It can be up to … 52 per cent medical professionals and probably since the pandemic hit, it’s even higher,” Feggos said. 

It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Katina Feggos, a Saint John-based counsellor, says the number of health-care professionals seeking mental health counselling is on the rise. (Family Plus)

“I think medical professionals are taxed with the extra burden of the severity of the current situation of the pandemic.” Feggos said.

Cindy Donovan has seen it first hand in recent months.

The CEO of Loch Lomond Villa, a Saint John assisted living and nursing home, said they had avoided COVID infections through much of the first two years of the pandemic.

But Donovan said that changed when restrictions were lifted earlier this year.

And a recent outbreak in the assisted living wing had at least 15 residents isolated with positive COVID tests.

Staff were also affected.

Cindy Donovan, CEO of Loch Lomond Villa in Saint John, says the long-term-care home has lost staff to burnout. (Submitted by Cindy Donovan )

“I would say probably about two weeks ago, or probably 10 days, I would consider we had critical staffing,” Donovan told CBC. “Where that meant that we were having a crisis.

“You know we had staff that couldn’t come to work for one reason or another — COVID, flu, just not feeling well or what have you. So it really did put a strain on us.

“But again, you know, our staff have been working overtime, they work, you know, double shifts. I can’t say enough about them, of how they continue to show up daily, as well as step up when we are needing those extra staff to be present.”

But that willingness to go the extra mile comes with a price.

In late October, Fredericton emergency room doctor Yogi Sehgal described a Saturday at the Everett Chalmers Hospital ER where only two nurses were on hand out of a regular staff of five.

Sehgal told CBC that it was not unusual for staff to be asked to work on days off, which leads to a feeling of being overworked and underpaid, with the additional stress of the fear of making a mistake in a world where there aren’t enough resources to do the job.

Dr. Yogi Sehgal, an emergency physician, says the health-care staffing situation at the hospitals he works at in Fredericton and Oromocto are becoming dire, with many quitting or looking for ways to leave their jobs. (Zoom/CBC)

But Sehgal said the biggest issue is the frustration of not being able to help people who need it.

“It’s that moral injury of knowing that, ‘Man, I could help you if I had the resources to do so, but I don’t,'” he said.

“We just do the job that’s in front of us.”

Sehgal said this is culminating in a mass nurse exodus and widespread burnout, which just creates a vicious cycle for the health-care workers that remain: even shorter staffing and more overtime.

Nursing homes, too

Donovan has seen it in the long-term-care industry, too.

“We’ve had staff — professional staff, nurses, LPNs — that have left the profession because of what we’ve gone through over these past three years. So it’s not a good state of affairs.”

Donovan said Loch Lomond Villa has an employee assistance program that allows staff to seek out mental health care, but she said online access isn’t always effective.

Management has tried to offer face-to-face counselling when possible.

Feggos said she sees the signs of burnout often in health-care workers. 

“There are components that are critical in burnout: emotional exhaustion, long hours, you know, almost feeling a depletion of empathy,” she said. “Not that you don’t care anymore, but your tank is empty and just no sense of accomplishment.”

“So, you know you’re doing the best that you can to care for these residents in nursing homes. But regardless of the care and the concern you’re showing to the patients, unfortunately the pandemic can reach anybody.”

Isolation hasn’t helped

Feggos said the isolation created by the pandemic has added to the problem of burnout.

“They may not attend big social events given the nature of their work, because they want to remain safe, because the next day they’re going back into these homes to work,” she said.

She recommends that her clients plan small gatherings with friends or family to avoid that sense of isolation.

“And believe it or not, social interaction is really, really important. And laughter and affection. So interestingly enough, there’s more research coming out that affection, even a 20-second hug from someone [can help].”

And, Feggos said, in an industry that requires employees to have a sense of empathy to be effective, it’s important that the people in charge also have empathy for those employees.

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