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Can we avoid public health workforce burnout during health emergencies?

Can we avoid public health workforce burnout during health emergencies?

Amy Elizabeth Parry – Australian National University

With no tangible end to the COVID-19 pandemic in sight, burnout of the public health workforce is a real and imminent threat. Due to the urgent nature of emergency responses, the emergency health surge workforce is frequently selected based on individuals’ availability, rather than their skills and experience. For this reason, the surge workforce is often relatively inexperienced, which is compounded by the scant amount of official support mechanisms in place. Field Epidemiology Training Programmes (FETPs), such as the Australian Master of Philosophy (Applied Epidemiology), provide some training on emergency response and provide support for the scholars during their learning. After graduation, ongoing support is rarely available except via informal networks.

Professional and wellbeing support of this workforce, junior or otherwise, is urgently required. In a step towards addressing this need, the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) and the Australasian Epidemiological Association (AEA) in 2020 established a pilot mentorship programme for COVID-19 surge responders. An evaluation of this mentorship found that, during the stressful environment of a national crisis, the programme effectively aided a workforce with limited public health response experience.

The support provided by mentors in the Australian programme was shown to improve mentee confidence in conducting their work, as well as assisting professional skill development in areas such as leadership and decision-making. Not only were mentees reinforced professionally, but wellbeing support was also highly valued by the evaluation participants. Mentees reported that their mentor acted like a sounding board, allowing them a space to talk through issues and identify how to navigate the political and epidemiological complexities of the crisis. Importantly, the evaluation identified that remote mentorship during crisis was appropriate.

The Australian COVID-19 mentorship programme found that workforce support could:

  • Increase the effectiveness of the workforce
  • Add to professional knowledge
  • Provide less-experienced responders with skills
  • Reduce stress and burnout.

In a recent paper, we detailed the Australian COVID-19 mentorship programme, and advocated for this style of programme to be rolled out for the health emergency workforce across our region. We proposed that the World Health Organization (Western Pacific Region) develop a pilot crisis mentorship programme. Our research has shown that mentorship has the potential to provide support for the COVID-19 response workforce, and is also an opportunity to learn and prepare for future public health emergencies.

As we move to a world of online communication, it is useful to know that supportive relationships and trust can be developed remotely, making it easier for future mentees to access the benefits of these programmes.

With the ongoing pandemic, what can we do to support the COVID-19 response workforce in lieu of an official support programme? Two simple things: we can advocate for mentorship programmes within our organisations or professional body, and make time to regularly chat and offer support to junior staff regarding their work situation, either in person or remotely.

Amy Elizabeth Parry is a PhD candidate at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health (NCEPH), Australian National University.


Image: Lagos Techie/Unsplash

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