CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Many medical professionals who volunteered for short-term placement at a field hospital in New York during the COVID-19 pandemic experienced high levels of secondary traumatic stress, a new study found.
However, high levels of compassion satisfaction — the satisfaction these volunteers got from helping others — protected some against psychological distress, according to Tara M. Powell, a professor of social work at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who is the author first study.
“Volunteers in our study showed milder PTSD symptoms than previous studies found among other frontline medical workers during the pandemic,” Powell said. The voluntary nature of their tasks may explain the high levels of compassion satisfaction they experienced. In turn, this sense of fulfillment belied the tremendous stressors and challenges that the pandemic created.”
The 57 health care volunteers in the new study worked as nurses, doctors, physicians and administrators at Ryan Larkin Field Hospital in Manhattan during spring 2020. Most were serving temporary deployments of six weeks or less at the field hospital.
Published in the journal Traumatology, the study sheds light on the emotional and physical toll the early days of the pandemic took on volunteer workers and the protective effects of compassion satisfaction.
According to the World Health Organization, post-traumatic stress and secondary traumatic stress disorders share symptoms such as experiencing flashbacks or disturbing dreams related to the trauma, nervousness and insomnia. While PTSD involves first-hand experiences of distressing events, secondary traumatic stress arises from exposure to other people’s illness, death, or discussions of their distressing experiences.
Burnout refers to emotional, mental and physical exhaustion associated with excessive work-related demands and stressors, according to the WHO. Sufferers may experience fatigue, apathy and reduced effectiveness in their work.
Previous studies found high levels of all three — burnout, PTSD and secondary stress — among frontline health care workers during the pandemic. Powell and her team wanted to explore whether volunteers experienced similar problems and whether higher levels of compassion satisfaction counteracted stress and burnout in them.
The researchers used five surveys to assess the participants’ mental health and well-being. These included a professional quality of life questionnaire that screened them for symptoms of PTSD and secondary stress and asked them to rate the level of satisfaction they received from their work at the field hospital.
Participants were asked about the amount of social support in their lives and the coping methods they used, including healthier problem-focused tactics and maladaptive avoidance strategies such as denial, withdrawal, and self-medication with alcohol or drugs.
Most participants experienced low to mild burnout symptoms, but a significant number met clinical criteria for PTSD or secondary traumatic stress. Some reported working up to 70 hours a week, and the team found that working these hours or more significantly increased workers’ risks for burnout and stress-related symptoms.
The strongest predictor of burnout, PTSD, and secondary stress symptoms was avoidant emotional coping—tactics such as denying or detaching from difficulties rather than focusing on solutions. Participants who used avoidance strategies and buried their feelings were at significantly greater risk of emotional distress.
“The findings confirm the need for interventions that mitigate the emotional consequences these workers experience by reinforcing positive, problem-focused coping skills and social support,” Powell said. “People in these professions are at increased risk of such problems at the best of times, and extraordinary circumstances such as those that occurred during the pandemic dramatically escalate these risks.”
Powell’s co-authors were Arizona State University social work professor Shanondora Billiot; Kristen Elzey, formerly a mental health consultant and staff care specialist at New York Presbyterian Hospital; registered nurse Amanda Brandon, also of NYPH; and Jenna Muller, a doctoral student at the U. of I.
The research was supported by an Early Career Research Fellowship to Billiot from the Bay Research Program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.