A new Charles Sturt University study on the impact of COVID-19 on frontline workers has revealed "alarming" rates of anxiety, depression and burnout.
The study's lead-researcher, professor Russell Roberts said that while he had expected the strain on workers' mental health to be significant during the pandemic, the actual figures were "much worse".
Of the 1542 police, paramedics, child protection and community health workers surveyed, depression among frontline workers was found to be three times the rate of the general population.
While anxiety levels in frontline staff were more than double that of the general community. The rates of emotional burnout and exhaustion were equally concerning to researchers. The data also revealed extremely high levels of "intention to quit" among those surveyed.
Dr Roberts - who is also the current Chair of the National Alliance for Rural and Remote Mental Health and the former Director of Mental Health and Drug and Alcohol Services for Western NSW - explained that the huge increase in stress among frontline workers was attributable to the fact the pandemic had made their work environments far more chaotic, unknown and, at times, even confrontational. There was also no end to sight to any of it.
"The workload has just increased [for frontline workers]. People are getting burnt out. People are having to do more work in different environments so the workload has just increased and whilst we thought this would only be for a month or two, it's now been over a year," he said.
"When things settle down [after the pandemic] we're really concerned a lot of people who say, 'I'm through with this profession. I'm doing something else. This is too much stress for me', [will quit]... If that happens, we have a looming workforce crisis in these frontline essential services. So this is why it's important to get the message out and to do something about it now."
For all the negative aspects uncovered in the study, Dr Roberts believes that there are solutions to the problem. Key public service organisations need to practically acknowledge the good work and engage with frontline workers to better understand what they need and the challenges they face in a rapidly evolving workplace.
"The best thing we can do and the most effective thing we can do is prevent the stress in the first place," Dr Roberts said.
"It's far better to prevent the causes of poor mental health and depression and burnout than to try and fix it afterwards. And this data says that we can do that."
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