Nashville, TN —For many of us, frontline healthcare workers are more than heroes. They’re also family members or close friends who feel like family. Having someone you love working on the front lines of COVID means you get a front-row view of their daily fear, exhaustion, and stress. While you may feel helpless to stop their suffering, Diana Hendel, PharmD, and Mark Goulston, MD, say there’s a lot you can do to make their lives a bit easier.
Five Ways Family Members And Friends Can Help
“The most powerful thing you can do for the frontline worker in your life is giving them a safe place to land after a hard day’s work,” says Dr. Hendel, coauthor along with Dr. Goulston of Why Cope When You Can Heal?: How Healthcare Heroes of COVID-19 Can Recover from PTSD (Harper Horizon, December 2020, ISBN: 978-0-7852-4462-2, $17.99). “When every day feels like a battle, they need to come home to a haven of peace and comfort where they can shake off excess stress and gear up for another tough day.”
“You may not be able to change their work conditions, but a few heartfelt gestures will show your loved one that you see them, that you care, and that it is safe to let their guard down at home,” adds Dr. Goulston. “That’s a serious gift during times of great stress.”
Read on for five ways to make a difference to the healthcare worker in your life. And remember, this advice is for immediate family members AND friends of frontline workers. You don’t have to live under the same roof as them to give them your support.
Take on extra household duties at home. Chances are the healthcare worker in your life has less bandwidth for focusing on their responsibilities outside of work, so jump in and pick up the slack. Spouses or partners can take over the primary chores of housekeeping, food preparation, and childcare. Your loved ones can still do the tasks they are comfortable performing. Still, they will feel relieved to know that the burden of responsibility isn’t solely on them.
Friends can also find ways to pitch in and help out. Offer to do a grocery run, treat them to delivery from their favorite takeout spot, or mail them a care package with a good book, a weighted blanket, a candle, or an eye mask so they can relax and recharge in their downtime.
Plan lighthearted, fun interactions during their time off. Help your loved one unplug after a long work week by keeping things lighthearted and fun. Get outdoors for a socially distanced hike. Plan a lazy day of streaming their favorite movies (think comedies or feel-good classics). If you have kids, plan a fun family project like baking a cake or making crafts.
Ask them what they need (or don’t need!) when they are stressed out. Your loved one is facing an unusual amount of stress right now, and they may not respond as they normally would to your well-meaning attempts to help out. So, ask them directly, “What can I do—or avoid doing—to help you when you feel anxious, stressed, triggered, or otherwise upset?” You might learn that something you have been doing isn’t helpful at all, but chances are your loved one will have some great suggestions that you can try to lend support to when they are struggling.
Make a point to really listen to them. Listening is one of the most potent ways to support anyone facing the traumatic stress of working the COVID front lines. They are likely to need an empathetic listening ear more than they need a pep talk. People in healthcare are already robust and resilient. Still, they need to feel that they can let their guard down and express what might seem like “negative” emotions without being talked out of their feelings. Give them a safe space to share whatever, positive or negative, is on their mind.
Be on the lookout for changes in behavior. If your ordinarily optimistic and upbeat loved one is struggling, there might be telltale signals that something is wrong. Some signs to watch for:
- They start having angry outbursts or temper flares.
- They start crying much more than usual.
- They isolate and avoid you and other loved ones.
- They keep saying, “I’m fine,” even when it’s clear they are just putting on a cheerful face.
If you notice these or other unusual changes, encourage your loved one to talk to a mental health professional. Their workplace may have an EAP (employee assistance program) with resources for counseling and support, or they can reach out to a therapist, priest, or social worker.
“Healthcare workers need emotional and practical support now more than ever,” concludes Dr. Hendel. “As a loved one, you have a vital role to play in ensuring they get the nurture and care they need. You may not be able to take away their stressful work conditions, but you can do this. By giving them a safe place to land, you can lighten their burden and give them the strength they need to carry on.”