The Sunday Times (5 April 2020)
In the aftermath of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak 17 years ago, Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) turned informal peer support given to staff on the front line into a formal Staff Support Staff (3S) programme.
Over the years, the programme has grown, training several hundred hospital staff in areas such as peer support and how to recognise and respond to early signs of mental health issues.
So when the coronavirus outbreak became more widespread in February, the programme’s executive committee, led by chairman Habeebul Rahman, started to ramp up support measures in anticipation of increased stress, burnout and other mental health issues among staff.
"We thought we needed to put in place processes to get the pulse of how staff were feeling and shore up resilience and positive psychology quickly. If the outbreak is not going away any time soon, we need to mitigate burnout," said Dr Habeebul.
The pandemic is unlike anything the team has seen since the Sars outbreak, he added.
A total of 238 people in Singapore were infected with Sars in 2003, and 33 of them died. The number of coronavirus cases here has crossed 1,100 and is set to rise.
"Healthcare workers are stressed not just by the question of whether they could get infected. The sheer number of patients coming in is also weighing quite heavily on them," he said.
"For doctors across the system, there is a sense of anxiety in not knowing if the next patient they see might be infected with Covid19."
The 3S programme expected a significant increase in the number of staff requiring mental health support, so it was a pleasant surprise to the team that the rise was not as large as had been expected, said Dr Habeebul, even with the many operational changes that have taken place at TTSH and its neighbouring National Centre for Infectious Diseases over the last three months.
"Staff do feel stressed, but they are doing a tremendous job managing as well as they can," he said. Still, the team is prepared if things get worse. "We’re not out of the woods yet, and in a lot of ways we are doing what we can and trying not to worry too much about what’s coming up," he added.
At Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH), a similar Peers Around Lending Support (Pals) programme has seen a slight increase in the number of staff requiring individual help, said the hospital’s head of psychological medicine, Dr Goh Kah Hong. "This is largely due to the increased demand at work in terms of fluidity of events and new workflows, as well as in their personal lives."
The Pals team has also ramped up efforts by starting outreach groups to educate staff about signs of stress, burnout and anxiety.
Six sessions, each involving small groups of eight to 10 at a time, meet once a week to share their struggles and tips. This fosters a sense of community and helps staff feel less alone, Dr Goh said.
He added: "With early recognition, we hope they would be able to manage the stressors early and prevent them from escalating." At TTSH, a crowdsourced staffappreciation effort on Workplace, Facebook’s platform for businesses, was started to share positive messages, compliments and uplifting content online.
Workers who are not frontline healthcare staff, such as housekeeping staff, porters, health attendants and drivers, are also taken care of, with donations of food and care packages going their way as well, said Mr Dominic Tung, TTSH’s assistant director of human resource wellness.