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The importance of a post-COVID wellness program for medical staff



Long after the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, the psychological sequelae and behavioral effects of persistent distress will likely persist for health care workers, according to Jon A. Levenson, MD.

“We can learn from previous pandemics and epidemics, which will be important for us going forward from COVID-19,” Dr. Levenson, associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York, said during an annual psychopharmacology update held by the Nevada Psychiatric Association.

Dr. Jon A. Levenson associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York.

Dr. Jon A. Levenson

During the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2005, 68% of health care workers reported significant job-related stress, including increased workload, changing work duties, redeployment, shortage of medical supplies, concerns about insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE), lack of safety at work, absence of effective treatment protocols, inconsistent organizational support and information and misinformation from hospital management, and witnessing intense pain, isolation, and loss on a daily basis with few opportunities to take breaks (Psychiatr Serv. 2020 Oct 6. doi: 10.1176/

Personal concerns associated with psychopathological symptoms included spreading infection to family members; feeling responsibility for family members’ social isolation; self-isolating to avoid infecting family, which can lead to increased loneliness and sadness. “For those who were working remotely, this level of work is hard and challenging,” Dr. Levenson said. “For those who are parents, the 24-hour childcare responsibilities exist on top of work. They often found they can’t unwind with friends.”

Across SARS, MERS, Ebola, and swine flu, a wide range of prevalence in symptoms of distress, stress, anxiety, depressive symptoms, and substance use emerged, he continued. During COVID-19, at least three studies reported significant percentages of distress, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and PTSD among health care workers (JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3[3]:e203976, Front Psychol. 2020 Dec 8;11:608986., and Gen Hosp Psychiatry. Sep-Oct 2020;66:1-8).

“Who is at most-increased risk?” Dr. Levenson asked. “Women; those who are younger and have fewer years of work experience; those working on the front lines such as nurses and advanced practice professionals; and people with preexisting vulnerabilities to psychiatric disorders including anxiety, depression, obsessional symptoms, substance use, suicidal behavior, and impulse control disorders are likely to be especially vulnerable to stress-related symptoms.”

At CUIMC, there were certain “tipping points,” to the vulnerability of health care worker well-being in the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, including the loss of an emergency medicine physician colleague from death by suicide. “On the national level there were so many other issues going on such as health care disparities of the COVID-19 infection itself, the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, other issues of racial injustice, a tense political climate with an upcoming election at the time, and other factors related to the natural climate concerns,” he said. This prompted several faculty members in the CUIMC department of psychiatry including Claude Ann Mellins, PhD, Laurel S. Mayer, MD, and Lourival Baptista-Neto, MD, to partner with ColumbiaDoctors and New York-Presbyterian Hospital and develop a model of care for health care workers known as CopeColumbia, a virtual program intended to address staff burnout and fatigue, with an emphasis on prevention and promotion of resilience.* It launched in March of 2020 and consists of 1:1 peer support, a peer support group program, town halls/webinars, and an active web site.

The 1:1 peer support sessions typically last 20-30 minutes and provide easy access for all distressed hospital and medical center staff. “We have a phone line staffed by Columbia psychiatrists and psychologists so that a distressed staff member can reach support directly,” he said. The format of these sessions includes a brief discussion of challenges and brainstorming around potential coping strategies. “This is not a psychotherapy session,” Dr. Levenson said. “Each session can be individualized to further assess the type of distress or to implement rating scales such as the Generalized Anxiety Disorder-7 scale to assess for signs and symptoms consistent with GAD. There are options to schedule a second or third peer support session, or a prompt referral within Columbia psychiatry when indicated.”

A typical peer support group meeting lasts about 30 minutes and comprises individual divisions or departments. Some goals of the peer groups are to discuss unique challenges of the work environment and to encourage the members of the group to come up with solutions; to promote team support and coping; to teach resilience-enhancing strategies from empirically based treatments such as CBT, “and to end each meeting with expressions of gratitude and of thanks within the group,” he said.

According to Dr. Levenson, sample questions CopeColumbia faculty use to facilitate coping, include “which coping skills are working for you?”; “Are you able to be present?”; “Have you honored loss with any specific ways or traditions?”; “Do you have any work buddies who support you and vice versa?”; “Can your work community build off each other’s individual strengths to help both the individual and the work group cope optimally?”; and “How can your work team help facilitate each other to best support each other?”

Other aspects of the CopeColumbia program include town halls/grand rounds that range from 30 to 60 minutes in length. “It may be a virtual presentation from a mental health professional on specific aspects of coping such as relaxation techniques,” he said. “The focus is how to manage stress, anxiety, trauma, loss, and grief. It also includes an active Q&A to engage staff participants. The advantage of this format is that you can reach many staff in an entire department.” The program also has an active web site for staff with both internal and external support links including mindfulness, meditation, exercise, parenting suggestions/caregiving, and other resources to promote well-being and resilience for staff and family.

To date, certain themes emerged from the 1:1 and peer support group sessions, including expressions of difficulty adapting to “such a new reality,” compared with the pre-COVID era. “Staff would often express anticipatory anxiety and uncertainty, such as is there going to be another surge of COVID-19 cases, and will there be a change in policies?” Dr. Levenson said. “There was a lot of expression of stress and frustration related to politicizing the virus and public containment strategies, both on a local and national level.”

Staff also mentioned the loss of usual coping strategies because of prolonged social isolation, especially for those doing remote work, and the loss of usual support resources that have helped them in the past. “They also reported delayed trauma and grief reactions, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress,” he said. “Health care workers with children mentioned high levels of stress related to childcare, increased workload, and what seems like an impossible work-life balance.” Many reported exhaustion and irritability, “which could affect and cause tension within the work group and challenges to effective team cohesion,” he said. “There were also stressors related to the impact of racial injustices and the [presidential] election that could exacerbate the impact of COVID-19.”

Dr. Levenson hopes that CopeColumbia serves as a model for other health care systems looking for ways to support the mental well-being of their employees. “We want to promote the message that emotional health should have the same priority level as physical health,” he said. “The term that I like to use is total health. Addressing the well-being of health care workers is critical for a healthy workforce and for delivering high-quality patient care.”

He reported having no relevant financial disclosures related to his presentation.

Correction, 2/28/22: An earlier version of this article misstated Dr. Lourival Baptista-Neto's name.

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