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How frontline workers can take care of their mental health

Reviewed by Mary T. Johnson, RN, MSN

A female nurse.

We’ve all been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in our own personal way, but frontline workers who’ve been putting their lives on the line since the very beginning have been through some of the toughest experiences imaginable. And the research shows it.

A study from the University of Utah found that over half of healthcare workers including doctors, nurses, and emergency responders who’ve been caring for people affected by COVID-19 are at a higher risk of experiencing mental health problems like acute traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and alcohol use.1

Frontline workers, of course, encompass more than just those who work in healthcare. They’re education workers, food-processing plant workers, manufacturing workers, corrections workers, postal service workers, public transit workers, and, of course, grocery store workers.

Working with the public to provide essential services during the best of times is challenging enough. But during the pandemic, frontline workers have had to deal with a whole new level of stress and uncertainty.

Consider some of these heartbreaking statistics:

  • Out of 263 nurses who participated in a survey in the final months of 2020, 8.4% of them said that they had experienced physical violence, 57.8% experienced verbal violence, and 61.6% experienced mobbing.2
  • More than half of nurses (52.1%) had thoughts of quitting.
  • In a study involving 104 grocery store workers, 24% of them reported symptoms of anxiety while 8% reported symptoms of depression.3
  • The grocery store workers who participated in the study who were unable to practice social distancing showed significantly higher risks of anxiety or depression.

It’s no surprise that frontline workers have been some of the people who’ve been hit hardest in terms of their mental health during this pandemic. It isn’t fair to compare someone who has the ability to stay at home to someone who’s potentially being exposed to the virus by serving the public, caring for people who may or may not be infected, dealing with people who are scared or angry, or witnessing human suffering and death. 

As a frontline worker, it’s more important than ever right now to make self-care a top priority. If you’re struggling with your mental health, here’s what you can do.

Prioritize Checking in on Your Mental Health

The physical, mental, and emotional toll of doing your job while trying to maintain somewhat of a normal personal life can be overwhelming. As a frontline worker, it’s important to recognize signs of stress before it’s too late.

Burnout can happen when you’re dealing with prolonged periods of stress. Anyone can experience it, but it’s especially prevalent in work-related fields that require dealing with the public. Burnout causes you to feel chronically exhausted on a physical and/or emotional level, driven by the sense that nothing you do feels like it matters anymore.

Compassion fatigue is another mental health condition that’s often experienced by healthcare workers who end up taking on the suffering of the patients they’re caring for. Like burnout, it’s characterized by trying to do too much with not enough resources.  As a result, people with compassion fatigue end up feeling “numb” and like their efforts aren’t making a difference.

No matter how busy you might be, it’s important to take time to make a daily habit out of checking in with yourself. Do it when you wake up, before you start work, on your breaks, after work, or before you go to sleep. If you can, aim to check in with yourself multiple times a day.

Take note of your emotional state—whether you’re feeling sad, angry, anxious, or depressed. Write it down, if you can. Are you having trouble sleeping? Are you struggling in your relationships?

It’s up to you to take stock of how you’re feeling and what’s going on in your life. The more aware you are of what’s going on with yourself, the better position you’ll be in to do something about. 

Set Healthy Boundaries for Yourself

Boundaries are limits you have in your work and personal relationships to help protect your physical energy, emotional energy, and time. Without boundaries, you put yourself at risk of having your time and energy drained, which can lead to exhaustion, burnout, and other mental health problems.

So, what do boundaries actually look like for frontline workers? Well, a physical boundary could involve requiring a certain amount of physical space between you and another person. Another example is the requirement of wearing a mask when you’re in a certain environment, or interacting closely with someone.

Emotional boundaries help prevent you from unconsciously taking on the responsibility of other people’s actions or feelings. For example, let’s say that you can’t stand listening to a coworker vent about the patients or customers they work with. If you don’t have the authority to choose to stop working with them, then you may need to discuss it with them or ask your boss about changing work schedules/environments in order to successfully set this boundary.

Finally, time boundaries involve protecting your time. You might really value your time spent with your family and as a result, decide that you’ll no longer agree to work overtime or work double shifts.

Use your emotional check-ins to help give yourself hints about the boundaries you may need to put in place. And when the time comes to tell other people about your boundaries, don’t procrastinate or avoid doing it just because you’re scared of how they might react.

It isn’t selfish to set boundaries. Plan to do it, making sure to be as honest and respectful as possible. If others can’t reciprocate that to you, then it may be time to reconsider working with or spending time around them at all.

Find Healthy Ways to Process Emotions

It’s no secret that frontline workers experience a wide range of emotions from the work they do—many of which are negative. From sadness and fear, to anger and resentment, it can often be very difficult and uncomfortable to have to deal with these kinds of emotions.

Stuffing them away, or distracting yourself from having to really feel them, however, can lead to more problems down the line. Yes, you have a job to do, and that requires a certain level of professionalism, but you’re also human and you have to find a way to balance human emotion with the emotional demands of your job.

Boundaries are one way to keep your emotions in check, but they’re no miracle solution. Working with the public can be totally unpredictable, and depending on your role, it may be inevitable that you have to deal with some very emotionally challenging situations.

Here are a few ideas you can use to help yourself really feel—and release—some of those more uncomfortable emotions:

Find a safe environment to let it all out. Go somewhere to be alone where you can cry, scream into a pillow, take a swing at a punching bag, or do whatever you feel the need to do to get it all out of your system. 

Try journaling. Even if you don’t like writing and don’t consider yourself to be good at it, spilling your guts onto paper can be extremely therapeutic. It can also really help you organize your thoughts and understand what you’re feeling.

Talk to someone you trust. Talking—either to someone else or just yourself—is a form of emotional release. The benefit of talking to someone like a close friend or family member is that you can get their perspective on the situation, which might help you see things differently and process your feelings better.

Use the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). You may be able to relieve emotional pain just by targeting certain pressure points on your body. EFT is a type of therapy that involves tapping on certain areas to stimulate energy flow and to relieve both physical and psychological tension.

Consider Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Sometimes it’s our unhealthy thoughts that cause us emotional pain. CBT is a treatment method used by therapists to help people learn how to recognize their own distorted thoughts that are causing problems, then work toward changing them.

These are just a few suggested ways that you can process emotions in healthy ways, but we encourage you to find a strategy that works best for you. Other ideas include exercising, praying or meditating, drawing or painting, listening to music, or destroying something—such as by writing something down and ripping it up, or burning it in a contained area.

Team Up with a Coworker for Support

You can do a lot to take care of your mental health on your own, but nothing quite compares to getting help and support from others. This is your opportunity to “buddy up” with a coworker so you can look out for each other and have each other’s back when things get tough.

Is there someone you work with who you get along with well and admire? Start there. If you can’t think of anyone, try getting to know your coworkers so you can get a better feel for who you think you’d feel safe and comfortable talking to.

Schedule times to check in with each other at the beginning or end of your workday or shift—or during break time if you share them. Here are some key things you can do each time the two of you connect:

  • Talk about how the day is going
  • Share experiences and feelings
  • Share or ask for tips and advice to help solve problems
  • Offer or ask to share workloads to help make things more manageable
  • Encourage each other to take breaks
  • Share strategies for managing stress
  • Acknowledge each other’s efforts
  • Praise each other’s accomplishments

You don’t necessarily have to talk about your personal life with each other, but doing so anyway—at least on a very casual level—can help to strengthen your connection and make your conversations much friendlier and more enjoyable.  

Your Job Doesn’t Have to Define or Consume You

It can be hard to separate yourself from what you do—especially as a frontline worker who’s frequently exposed to the actions and emotions of the public. But by using the techniques discussed above, you can create and maintain a healthy emotional balance between who you are as a person, and your work.

If you’re struggling with your mental health as a frontline worker, you’re not alone. Visit our therapist directory to find a licensed professional near you who can help you get back to a healthy, balanced state.

About the author

Elise Burley is a member of the editorial team. She has more than a decade of professional experience writing and editing on a variety of health topics, including for several health-related e-commerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not working, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.