Pandemic Impacts Mental Health of Frontline Workers

Mar 9, 2021

Registered nurse Karen DiLiberta has constant worry that she will be exposed. A wound care nurse at Eastern Niagara Hospital, she and her coworkers quickly adapted to extensive PPE requirements and patient care protocol, which she describes as exhausting. She also has a personal routine to keep herself and her family safe.

When she returns home from her shift, she leaves her shoes in the garage, quickly showers and washes her uniforms immediately.

“I don’t have a lot of anxiety while I’m doing my job because I’m focused on my patients but coming home to my family is when the anxiety kicks in,” she said.

In the early days of the pandemic, community members dropped off countless pizzas, dinners, and treats to the hospital which lifted the spirits of employees. DiLiberta relies on exercise for stress relief as well as talking with her coworkers.

“We are our own support system because we are going through it together,” she said.

A study conducted by Mental Health America (MHA) revealed that 93% of healthcare workers were experiencing stress; 86% reported experiencing anxiety; 77% reported frustration; 76% reported exhaustion and burnout; and 75% said they were overwhelmed.

Slightly more than three-quarters say they were worried about exposing their child to COVID-19, nearly half were worried about exposing their spouse or partner and 47% were worried about exposing their older adult family members.

We all know, as professionals, that we should take care of ourselves so we can help others, but we often are the first to throw that rule out the door when jumping to a crisis,” said Molly S. Short Carr, chief executive officer, Jewish Family Services of Western New York. “For frontline and hospital workers, we want it to be more than just a good idea to seek out self-care. We want to change the narrative so we know it is a part of our own professional responsibilities to care for ourselves. To seek out help and support when we feel overwhelmed.  To make sure we are the best we can be for ourselves, our families, and the communities we serve.

Mental Health Support for Catholic Health Associates

To address the mental health challenges of their associates, Catholic Health created two new resiliency resources to help them cope with the stress of the pandemic and encouraged use of supports already in place.

“Listening Hearts” are new and specialized counselors hired to supplement staff already working in the Spiritual Care Department. When the pandemic hit the west coast, Catholic Health prepared by hiring specialized counselors with experience in grief counseling, crisis management, critical incident stress debriefing, trauma-informed care, mental health, and substance abuse. The counselors offer individual and group listening and processing sessions, meditation sessions, prayer services, and workshops on coping, grief and loss, solution-focused and trauma care.

Catholic Health also has nationally certified chaplains on staff, representing a wide variety of denominations and backgrounds, with many of the same skill sets.

New for associates who need mental health support is CredibleMind, an online mental health and emotional well-being platform with access to evidence-based resources to support resiliency. CredibleMind is focused on prevention and early intervention and is available 24/7.

Catholic Health also created a Wellbeing and Resiliency Apps resource list to share with associates. Suggested apps include Anxiety Coach, Relax & Sleep Well, Self-Help for Anxiety Management, and many prayer and meditation apps.

It’s Ok Not to be Ok

Some concerns of first responders and essential workers during COVID-19 are shared on the Erie County website:

  • “Others doing the same job have become seriously ill.”
  • “I’m concerned I will carry the virus home and infect my family.”
  • “My friends and family are urging me to stop going to work because of the risks.” 
  • “Social isolation and imposed restrictions eliminate the ways I would usually handle stress.”

The Erie County Department of Mental Health offers information and services here.

Endeavor Health Services is offering specific evidence-based practice dedicated to helping people involved in this pandemic, called the COPE model. One such resource is offered by Endeavor Health Services. For frontline workers, the force and need to continue working can be extremely stressful while feelings of isolation, distraction, helplessness, and fear can be increased.

The Centers of Psychiatric Excellence (COPE) model for COVID-19 is a six session, individual telehealth intervention based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to address mental health consequences. The goal of ACT specifically designed to help individuals adapt to the negative emotions and behaviors. Learn more by calling Endeavor Health Services at 716-895-6701.

The Western New York Trauma Recovery Network is available to Buffalo Police Department and other first responders and health care providers responding to traumatic events of COVID-19.

“Everyone is Suffering”

The Mental Health Peer Connection is a peer-driven advocacy organization dedicated to facilitating self-directed growth, wellness and choice through genuine peer mentoring. Services include peer counseling, advocacy, independent living skills, information, and referral. All employees experience behavioral health issues.

While supporting their clients’ mental health, employees are also dealing with their own challenges during the pandemic.

Maura Kelly, executive director, said it was a challenge of working remotely from her kitchen table during the early days of the pandemic. She struggled being apart from human contact and feared getting sick.

It was difficult helping clients while she herself was struggling, but family who encouraged her to continue with her current regimen of therapy changed everything.

Kelley has noticed a shift in the stigma of mental illness.

“People are more willing to reach out, and people are finally listening,” she said. “No one is asking why anymore – they are asking how they can help,” she said. “No one has been chastised for dealing with mental challenges. Everyone is suffering and we are getting through it together.”

Anyone overwhelmed with COVID-19 is urged to call the New York State Emotional Support Helpline at 1-844-863-9314 from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.

Crisis Services Hotline
Buffalo & Erie County

How to Build Resilience During the COVID-19 Pandemic

  • Communicate with your coworkers, supervisors, and employees about job stress.
    • Talk openly about how the pandemic is affecting your work.
    • Identify factors that cause stress and work together to identify solutions.
    • Ask about how to access mental health resources in your workplace.
  • Remind yourself that everyone is in an unusual situation with limited resources.
  • Identify and accept those things which you do not have control over.
  • Recognize that you are performing a crucial role in fighting this pandemic and that you are doing the best you can with the resources available.
  • Increase your sense of control by keeping a consistent daily routine when possible — ideally one that is similar to your schedule before the pandemic.
    • Try to get adequate sleep.
    • Make time to eat healthy meals.
    • Take breaks during your shift to rest, stretch, or check in with supportive colleagues, coworkers, friends and family.
  • When away from work, get exercise when you can. Spend time outdoors either being physically active or relaxing. Do things you enjoy during non-work hours.
  • Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting and mentally exhausting, especially since you work with people directly affected by the virus.
  • If you feel you may be misusing alcohol or other drugs (including prescriptions), ask for help.
  • Engage in mindfulness techniques, such as breathing exercises and meditation.
  • If you are being treated for a mental health condition, continue with your treatment and talk to your provider if you experience new or worsening symptoms.


Hospital and frontline workers are at the forefront of coping with the trauma of the pandemic. The longer hours and added stress can have a compounding effect on both physical and mental health. The pandemic threw everyone’s lives into a spin. During times like this it is important to ensure we can be compassionate and empathetic to each other to keep moving forward every day. Frontline workers need a safe space to help debrief, destress, and feel supported so they can be prepared to continue to provide vital services. JFS’ goal is to make sure support is easily available, both long and short-term.

Molly S. Short Carr, Ph.D.

Chief Executive Officer
Jewish Family Services of Western New York

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