Australian study recommends eight ways to avoid COVID burnout

A major Australian study, conducted by Charles Sturt University researchers, has found that more than half of our frontline workers are suffering burnout from COVID-19, with triggers including inadequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and confusing organisational communication.

The study, which makes eight recommendations, examined the effects of working during the pandemic on more than 1,500 police, paramedic, child protection and community health workers.

They found the rates of emotional exhaustion, depression and anxiety in these workers were many times higher than in the general public, and significantly higher than among hospital-based health workers.

While they expected to identify negative mental health impacts, they were alarmed by the extreme and disturbing levels found. According to lead researcher Professor Russell Roberts, the data identified the major predictors of poor mental health and burnout were overwork, the increased complexity of work, insufficient practical support and guidance and confusing, ambiguous and conflicting communications - all factors which organisations were able to address.

Despite Australia's relatively low COVID-19 infection and mortality rates, these workers experienced significant personal and professional impacts. Sources of stress included the general fear of being infected and spreading it to family and colleagues - but made worse by a lack of access to PPE. The work also became more complex, intense and demanding: managing increased hygiene precautions and PPE use, staff absences, increased client needs, rapid changes in regulatory frameworks, procedures and protocols.

Workers were generally dissatisfied with consultation, communication from management and support mechanisms.

The researchers recommended:

  1. Services bring on additional and redeploy existing personnel and resources to meet increased operational demands due to COVID-19.
  2. Organisations develop a communication strategy and plan to be activated in crises, pandemics or major service disruptions.
  3. Senior executives demonstrate their awareness, understanding and connection to the "on-the-ground" experiences of frontline workers, acknowledge their effort, and consult on improvements.
  4. Organisations revise policies and procedures to take into account such crises.
  5. Frontline staff be provided with appropriate PPE, PPE training and support for tasks outside the normal scope of practice.
  6. Workers be provided with a range of mental health support services from both within and outside their organisations.
  7. Organisations recognise that work has social components that are essential for workplace wellbeing and to support individual resilience.
  8. Organisations avoid cutting wages or delaying pay increases for frontline staff during times like the pandemic and consider ways to "tangibly recognise" their increased workloads and stress.

Read more: The mental health, wellbeing and work impacts of COVID-19 on first responders and frontline workers in Australia: Summary of findings, June 2021, [pdf] Charles Sturt University. Source: OHSAlert


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