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Help for health care workers facing stresses on the job

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MADISON (WKOW) -- As some communities begin to return to normal, we'll still be fighting COVID-19 for months and the stress over the virus hasn't gone away.

An April poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found one in five adults believes the ongoing crisis has had a negative impact on their mental health.

Health care workers are seeing how it impacts patients every day, working harder than ever right now to keep everyone safe.

"When these COVID patients are the ICU they're very, very sick," said SSM Health respiratory therapist Kristie Reilly. "You're with them a lot. They're very tenuous. Simple things like repositioning their head can make their blood pressure drop, can make their oxygen saturation drop."

That kind of pressure can add to the stresses for these essential workers. Plus, the fears of the virus itself.

"Not that I didn't think about what I was going to bring home to my family [before the pandemic], but now it's definitely on my mind," Reilly told 27 News. "As soon as I get home, before my kids can talk to me, before my husband talks to me, I take everything off and I take a shower, wash my hair, just to make sure that I don't give them anything."

Experts say they're seeing more health care workers seeking counseling because the pandemic is taking a toll on their mental health.

"People get in survival mode and you just think, what do I need to do today to get to the job, to meet my family obligations. And we can really neglect our own mental health needs," said Dr. Lisa Baker, a psychologist at SSM Health.

Dr. Baker says the healthcare system is working on ways to help frontline workers get through the challenges. SSM launched a new virtual collaborative space, where people across departments can get together online and talk about what's going on.

"It's definitely something new in our system, really in reaction to the needs of healthcare workers at this time," she said. "It's been really an opportunity to collaborate with different disciplines across our system and it's been really rewarding to be a part of."

SSM Health is also providing more guidance for department leaders and educating staff to spot signs of stress among their coworkers.

"That is one way to mitigate, is having people look out for each other, giving each other breaks, normalizing, utilizing time for self care and really encouraging people to take care of themselves," Baker told 27 News.

It's that support from colleagues that's helping Kristie Reilly.

"We're really great at being there for each other, helping each other. We laugh a lot. We really are like a family," she said.

That family shares in the extra workload and keeps an eye out for each other on the job.

"We help each other a lot and I think that gets you through it, that builds morale when you know that you can count on your coworkers," said Reilly.

She also makes sure to relax when she gets down time at home, going for walks with her family or watching TV to ease her mind.

Plus, the public showing of support through thank you messages, meals and parades, helps them through one more day on the frontlines of the crisis.

"It really makes you feel good. It makes you feel appreciated," she said. "To know you have that community support, to know that you can go home and that people are behind us, I think it's really cool. It was definitely not something that we ever expected, but it's been a really neat thing to see that the community has come together."

Experts say everyone should take time to focus on their mental health right now. That may mean prioritizing a good night's sleep, getting exercise and eating well.

Many workplaces offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), which can provide mental health services. An April survey from the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans found 15 percent of employers have added services to their EAP since the pandemic began. 17 percent now have more coverage for mental health and 15 percent added telepsychiatry options.

Click here for resources and information on mental health services.

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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