Covid-19: as it spreads, so does health worker burnout

As health workers, we know from working in a chronically underfunded public health system already pushed to breaking point, that an outbreak of Covid-19 in New Zealand could have devastating consequences. Already the global epidemic is having an impact on medication and protective equipment supply, and putting pressure on already burnt out workers. Our comrades are reporting that: orderlies are being instructed NOT to wear protective gear if transporting a patient with Covid-19 in hospital as it “doesn’t look good”; panic and confusion in community and hospital settings when suspected cases present; processes lacking but frontline staff blamed for any impact on the service, and multiple cases of personal protective equipment being unavailable and staff not notified in advance of suspected Covid-19 cases they are providing care for.

Frontline workers tell us they feel at risk with DHBs being largely silent on any action plan other than “good hand washing”. Inconsistent with the relative indifference to infection control on the floor, DHBs have notified staff that pay may be withheld if travelling overseas and the worker has to self isolate. This is of concern considering that, unable to afford unpaid time off, some workers may go to work sick and risk spreading illness. If required to stand down safety reasons, the responsibility for health and safety lies with the employer and workers must be paid – this is also covered in employment agreements with DHB staff. If our employers were genuine about caring for staff and containing Covid-19, they would follow Ministry of Health advice to stay home if symptomatic with a runny nose, scratchy throat or cough. A health system in crisis would collapse.

The impacts of Covid-19 will continue months and as we head into winter, health workers will be at forefront of it, trying our best to protect those most vulnerable to the illness (i.e. elderly and immune-suppressed) in a system already operating at or over capacity. We know stressed and exhausted people are more susceptible to serious illness, and we also know that our healthcare services cannot afford to lose staff for 14 days at the best of times, let alone during the panic of Covid-19. Staff and patient safety should be paramount at a time like this, and we are alarmed at the response (or lack thereof) from our employers so far. Health workers are at the frontline, caring for sick and vulnerable people, often at the cost of our own wellness. We require health sector employers to set an example of how at risk workers should be treated and provide us with the resources to keep safe at work and paid time off if at risk to meet our obligations in minimising the spread of Covid-19.

If you are a health worker and would like to share a story of how Covid-19 is affecting your work/workplace, you can message us and we will anonymously post the information. We are on the front lines and our voices deserve to be heard.

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