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What do nurses need to survive the emotional impacts of COVID-19?

New research from Ryerson’s school of nursing sheds light on the toll that COVID-19 is taking on front-line nurses
By: Jessica Leach
February 05, 2021
Two nurses work in personal protective equipment

In speaking to 20 nurses across the Greater Toronto Area from six hospitals, researchers found that nurses are experiencing emotional trauma and post-traumatic stress while treating COVID-19 patients.

It was during COVID-19’s first wave that professor Jennifer Lapum, who teaches in Ryerson’s Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing, was approached by a group of nurse leaders from a Toronto hospital with an important request. They wanted, and needed, Lapum to study nurses as they navigated the emotional roller coaster of front-line care.

“Nurses were experiencing everything from fear of catching the virus, to uncertainty of not knowing what the virus was because it was so brand new, to helplessness as families said goodbye to loved ones on Zoom,” said Lapum.

Lapum’s study, titled, “Goodbye … Through a Glass Door”: Emotional Experiences of Working in COVID-19 Acute Care Hospital Environments, external link, examines the “dire work environments'' that nurses are working under during COVID-19 and how emotions shape their nursing practice.

Persistent distress

The study involved speaking to 20 registered nurses across the Greater Toronto Area from six hospitals. Ultimately, the study uncovered experiences of emotional trauma and post-traumatic stress. Lapum refers to these experiences as “powerful and persistent distress.” 

“[Nurses] talked about being the ‘sacrificial lamb’ because they often lacked access to high-quality personal protective equipment,” said Lapum. “There were some powerful stories. I got emotional listening to their interviews as they spoke about being emotionally drained and physically exhausted with no time to deal with the grief and loss they were experiencing.”

While results of the study show clear emotional impacts, like fear, uncertainty, helplessness and sadness, it also shows resiliency and opportunity.

“One nurse said to me, ‘you can’t be resilient without struggle’ and COVID-19 really is the struggle,” said Lapum. “But there was such camaraderie and resilience amongst this group as well, and that’s important.”

Opportunities for support

Lapum and her team of researchers have identified ways to “better support nurses in environments that are emotionally laden” with a series of recommendations to ensure that a nurse’s sacrifice is not all-encompassing.

“Some of these recommendations are simple and can be implemented right now, while others require provincial and federal funding” said Lapum.

Recommendations include:

  • Increased presence of health-care leadership
  • On-site access to psychological support
  • Greater advocacy for adequate supply of personal protective equipment
  • Support for the use of mental health days as sick days

Lapum hopes that this research helps Canada’s health-care leaders and government bodies understand the emotional impacts that nurses are experiencing and encourages them to act by offering access to more support.

“If we want to support nurse’s mental health and well-being and we want them to stay in the profession and stay dedicated to a particular hospital, this is needed.”

This research was funded by the Faculty of Community Services COVID-19 Rapid Response Research Grant, Ryerson University.

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