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Current research improves working conditions for health workers

Prof. Dr. Yesim Erim
Her research is aimed at improving working conditions for medical staff: Prof. Dr. (TR) Yesim Erim, Head of Department of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy in Erlangen (Image: Michael Rabenstein/Universitätsklinikum Erlangen)

Department of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy in Erlangen publishes results of a national study into mental strain experienced by healthcare workers during the coronavirus pandemic

The stress and strain experienced by medical staff during the coronavirus pandemic has not been out of the headlines since spring 2020. The results of a study conducted throughout Germany now prove how high the risk of developing depression or an anxiety disorder really is for medical staff and how this strain affects medical staff both at work and in their personal time. Between April and June 2020, Prof. Dr. (TR) Yesim Erim, Head of the Department of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy at Universitätsklinikum Erlangen, and her team conducted a survey together with the departments of psychosomatic medicine at the university hospitals in Bonn, Dresden, Cologne and Ulm, based on a total of 8,071 participants from the German health sector, including 3,060 members of staff from the five university hospitals. This study is the largest scientific study to be conducted to date on the mental health of healthcare workers, and is part of the EViPan Unimed project at the Department of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy in Erlangen. It is hoped that the findings from the online survey will help improve pandemic management in future, enabling specific measures to be taken to care for workers’ health during crisis periods. The EViPan Unimed project is one of 13 national collaborative projects to receive funding from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research within the framework of the national university medicine research network (NUM). A second round of the survey involving a large number of healthcare workers started on 16 November 2020.

‘One particularly interesting thing we noticed was that while the mental strain of medical staff compared to the general population was significantly higher before SARS-CoV-2, the level of stress experienced by healthcare workers during the pandemic was significantly lower than in the general public. This suggests that health staff are able to cope well with the situation,’ explains Prof. Erim. The interdisciplinary survey revealed that the prevalence of depression or anxiety disorders was 17.4 and 17.8 percent respectively among doctors, whilst nursing staff displayed slightly higher levels of stress, with a prevalence of 21.6 for depression and 19.6 for anxiety disorders. According to Prof. Erim, ‘Another important finding is that healthcare technicians are more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety disorders than doctors or nursing staff, with a prevalence of 23.0 and 20.1 percent respectively. This demonstrates that the strain is felt not only by frontline workers, but across the whole system.’

Basis for improved working conditions

When analysing risk factors for depression in staff working at university hospitals and other hospitals providing comprehensive care in Germany it became apparent that a greater risk was linked predominantly to a lack of recuperation during personal time, increased consumption of alcohol and a low level of confidence about obtaining support from direct colleagues in the case of difficulties arising at work. In addition, increased levels of anxiety were connected to fears of contracting the coronavirus. ‘Thanks to these findings, we can make recommendations for targeted support aimed at strengthening the resources we have, which help staff to cope better with specific crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic. This includes, for example, more effective team-building measures, training courses for managers, communication training, psychological assistance for particularly stressed staff and teams and improved communication of protective measures for medical personnel within the hospitals,’ summarises Prof. Erim. The complete study is currently being reviewed by the international journal ‘Journal of Psychosomatic Research.’

University medicine research network (NUM)

The Federal Ministry of Education and Research is providing a total of 150 million euros over ten months to 13 national collaborative projects within the framework of the national university medicine research network. The aim behind the financial support is to enable specialists from all 34 university hospitals in Germany to join forces and take an interdisciplinary approach to tackling the Covid-19 pandemic. NUM is being coordinated by Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin. Universitätsklinikum Erlangen is involved in eight of the 13 collaborative projects which were selected for funding from the hundreds of proposals which were submitted.

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