Dealing With COVID-19 Post-Traumatic Stress

Strategies for Preserving the Nursing Workforce and Supporting all Vital Frontline Personnel

Therese A. Fitzpatrick, PhD, RN, FAAN; Nancy M. Valentine, PhD, DSc(hon), MPH, FAAN, FNAP President


Nurs Econ. 2021;39(5):225-238, 250. 

In This Article

COVID-ending Careers

Just how bad was it? For those who may not have been on the forefront, I recommend all healthcare leaders read a poignant representation of frontline care during the pandemic. The lived experience of being a nurse treating COVID patients was addressed by journalist and nurse Theresa Brown (2021) entitled "Covid is Probably Going to End my Career." Brown focuses on many contributing factors to what made this situation nearly impossible for nurses, but concludes the healthcare system must address staffing as it is at the heart of so many burdens that nurses assume even before COVID, along with the need for more representation of nurses in the workplace. Brown credits unions, rather than professional nursing organizations, as taking the lead in seeking solutions in giving nurses a greater voice.

Embedded in Brown's article is a short film entitled Death through a Nurse's Eyes, produced by Alexander Stockton and Lucy King (2021). The film is a firsthand account of how nurses provided most of the care and survived on the frontlines. When they had time after a shift to process what they were witnessing, nurses covered up their feelings and the trauma they experienced to survive and protect their families. This film is a poignant portrayal of how the pandemic has impacted nurses. It is an emotional account of the realities involved. It is painful and hard to watch. But you must.

COVID brought leadership and staff in every setting to their knees. It is a terrifying and humbling experience to have so little control in an industry where, as leaders, we depend on routines, controls, administrative and clinical experiences to operate and get through each day. To have these practices and routines wiped away so quickly was clearly destabilizing. Healthcare professionals around the world died, which was a chilling reality. Who might be next?

In October 2020, ICN reported 1,500 nurses were dead from COVID-19 across 44 countries. Yet, since so many deaths go unreported and data reporting systems are lacking, the number of deaths may be closer to 20,000 clinician deaths worldwide. The World Health Organization recently adjusted this figure to at least 115,000 healthcare workers dead (De Castella, 2021; Jones, 2020). It has indeed been a war zone, fighting an invisible enemy. Nature fighting a war with humans.

Although we are looking forward to eventually putting the pandemic behind us, we are not out of the woods. Dealing with the fall out of the pandemic as it has affected nurses and the profession at large must be addressed by every leader in health care today. Everyone has been affected by COVID-19, not just those in the eye of the storm. It has rippled through every organization and community. Leaders and staff alike need support and recovery. Therefore, with the perspective that we must take time to assess our organizations, let's take the broader view of "we are all in this together" as it is imperative to engage all stakeholders in the rebuilding process.

In the pandemic media-driven sound bites, nurses and all clinical staff were hailed as heroes and accolades well deserved. But as we know from combat situations, heroism has its price. After the cheering is over, we are left with the real work of dealing with the emotional fallout.