Australian healthcare workers on the COVID-19 pandemic frontline need to be heard

During the Victorian second wave, over 3,500 healthcare workers (HCWs) were infected with COVID-19.

These numbers do not convey their lived experience, which has now, for the first time, been captured in a qualitative analysis published in the BMJ Leader, led by Monash University researcher and Alfred Health infectious diseases physician, Associate Professor Michelle Ananda-Rajah.

A/Prof Ananda-Rajah explained that this study of 569 HCW responses was done as part of an advocacy campaign launched in early August. The dominant themes, she said, included poor work health and safety standards; concerns about respiratory protection including the omission of fit-testing; deficiencies in the availability, quality, appropriateness and training of personal protective equipment and a command and control culture in the workplace that resulted in self-reported COVID-19 infections, bullying, a loss of trust in leadership and an occupational moral injury.

A/Prof Michelle Ananda-Rajah says. “These stories are powerful and could not be ignored, they motivated us to keep pushing for better safeguards at work.” She followed, “The critical impacts that resulted in closure of some health services and escalating infections in HCWs, did not happen by chance. They were the result of Swiss cheese-like failures described by HCWs who best grasp the barriers to psychological and physical safety at work.

"It is now up to healthcare leaders to fast-track solutions to these problems in order to restore trust and faith in leadership. Emerging mental health effects are the result of a moral injury- which was - and is - preventable”.

Of concern, many HCWs in this report felt that they had been locked out of the decision making process. A/Prof Ananda-Raja says, “HCWs were prescient, what they said would happen, did happen. Safety doesn’t happen by luck. It requires integration of work health and safety principles in healthcare which can only happen with committed leadership in collaboration with healthcare workers themselves.”

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