Doctors urge government to prioritize mental well being of frontline workers

Albert Chavhunduka

As the world celebrated Health Workers Day on April 7th, the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) called on government to increase its investment in mental health service provision by employing more psychologists and counsellors within the primary health care system and public institutions.

This year’s World Health Worker week ran from 4 to 8 April under the theme, ‘Build the Health Workforce Back Better’.

In a report titled ‘A Qualitative Research Study to Explore the Experiences of Medical Practitioners Responding to Covid-19 in Zimbabwe’, the association said with regards to mental health and psychosocial support, policy makers, health institutions and health related organisations must put in place an array of supportive interventions to support HCWs in Zimbabwe.

ZADHR said frontline health care workers who have been responding to the Covid-19 in the country’s public hospitals are suffering from poor mental health due to immense physical and psychological pressure.

“Zimbabwe suffers from a shortage of mental health workers. With only 18 psychiatrists, 10 occupational therapists and 13 clinical social workers covering the entire country, the labour force is huge,” read the report.

“As a result, there is high patient to staff ratio across all government medical facilities of approximately seven nurses per 100 000 people. There are also very few mental health facilities in Zimbabwe. There are only 11 mental health facilities across the entire country. Several facilities are no longer functional due to inadequate or various reasons such as inability to maintain existing infrastructure.”

In its report, ZADHR further said that limited number of workers in the hospitals has overwhelmed the health workers in public hospitals contributing to a stressful work environment, work overload and limited resting times.

“The work environment was described as unconducive due to heavy workloads leading to burnout and fatigue and characterised with abnormal working hours. During the peak of the Covid-19 wave, and as a result of the limited number of health workers in most health centres responding to Covid-19, there was limited or no time to rest or to take the provided off-days.”

The association added that the limited availability of institutionalised mechanisms which offer psychosocial support for health workers has resulted in them failing to cope with the burden of Covid-19.

“The absence of designated units within health facilities, where health workers can turn into and seek mental health and psychological support, contributed immensely to exacerbating the plight of frontline health workers responding to Covid-19. Many resorted to non-institutional alternative means of psychological support mainly peer-to-peer support whenever they required mental health support,” ZADHR said.

The association made a number of recommendations to government to put in place measures which encourage the improvement of the mental health of health care workers in the country’s public hospitals.

“The absence of designated units within health facilities, where health workers can turn into and seek mental health and psychological support contributed immensely to exacerbating the plight of frontline health workers responding to Covid-19.

In a message to celebrate the World Health Worker week, Executive Director of the Community Working Group on Health (CWGH) Itai Rusike said there was need to push government to do more and support frontline health workers and improve their conditions.

“We need to push donors, the government and health leaders to do more to support the future health workforce, including making long-term investments and policies to better train, deploy, equip, protect, retain and support frontline health workers,” said Rusike.

“Health workers are caught in the middle of a system that is slow to respond to their needs and ethical pressures not to take collective job action. We urge the government to set up an independent health services commission to address the glaring management and governance issues and ensure that the employer of choice for all health workers is central government as obtained in the past.”

World Health Day is celebrated annually on April 7, to mark the anniversary of the founding of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1948.

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