Nurses' PTSD: The reality for front-line healthcare workers

August 26, 2020

Wayne Hochwarter, the Jim Moran Professor of Management in the Florida State University College of Business and a research fellow at Austrailian Catholic University, examined post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced by nurses caring for COVID-19 patients. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, PTSD occurs when people experience reoccurring traumatic and horrifying events, either directly or by seeing others affected. Symptoms include a decline in mental health, such as the rumination of distressing events, difficulties functioning outside of work, irritability, sadness, and decreased interest in previously enjoyed social activities. 

“The nursing profession was already facing challenges well in advance of COVID-19, but this changed everything,” Hochwarter said. “If leaders don't wrap their arms around this problem as soon as possible, it is unlikely that they will have the staff needed to provide adequate healthcare. This reality is a big deal, but leaders can do something about it because they have little choice." 

Overall, because of COVID-19, Hochwarter found that nurses were avoiding friends, experiencing heightened emotions at home, increased irritability, and dwelling on work away from the job. 

PTSD was most noticeable in nurses when they experienced heightened emotional demands, when their facilities’ pre-pandemic preparation plan was insufficient, when nurses felt less in control at work and when politics were high. 

"Not all nurses experienced the same level of COVID-19 related PTSD at work," Hochwarter found. In general, PTSD was more common when COVID-19 caused the already-stressful nursing context to be disrupted, consequential in life and death, and unpredictable. 

Hochwarter reports that PTSD negatively impacts work-family balance, financial well-being, sleep, exhaustion, and "the fun" the nurses experienced pre-COVID-19. 

Hochwarter collected data about the effects of COVID-19 in July and August from 175 nurses who provide direct care to patients in clinical settings. 

He found that: 

  • 37% had disturbing thoughts while away from work 
  • 19% had nightmares about the pandemic 
  • 42% relived work difficulties away from work. 
  • 57% were more emotional at home 
  • 33% reported a decline in physical health. 
  • 54% dwelled on work situations while at home. 
  • 65% feel compelled to avoid friends, neighbors. 
  • 34% felt increasingly forgetful at home. 
  • 24% felt increasingly numb at home. 
  • 54% stopped making plans for the future 
  • 51% were more irritable at home. 
  • 50% noted that COVID affected healthy sleep. 
  • 34% made concentrating on essential tasks at home harder 
  • 43% were jumpier and more anxious 
  • 35% were more easily started at home 

This research is being prepared for publication.