One-third of public health workers have endured threats, anger and aggression from the public during the pandemic, and that has come at a steep cost to their mental health, a new study finds.
“The negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on workers have been documented and the research on psychological impacts is building,” said lead study author Hope Tiesman. She is a research epidemiologist with the division of safety research at the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), in Morgantown, W.Va.
“Public health workers do the important work of disseminating information and services to the public; making sure their health and well-being are addressed in the face of workplace violence is important for their mental health and for the health of the nation in future public health crises,” Tiesman added.
For the study, more than 26,000 state, tribal, local and territorial public health workers responded to an online survey developed by a team of researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including Tiesman.
The survey's aim was also to understand the prevalence of nonphysical workplace violence on public health workers between March 2020 and April 2021.
It included questions on demographics, level of workplace violence, other workplace factors, and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicidal ideation.
The survey found that nearly one in three public health workers experienced at least one form of workplace violence. These included receiving job threats or being bullied, harassed or stigmatized as they worked.
This workplace violence was associated with a 21% greater risk of reporting depression or anxiety, a 31% greater risk of reporting PTSD, and a 26% greater risk of reporting suicidal thoughts. This was true even after controlling for illness including COVID-19, losing a family member to COVID-19 and other stressful factors during this crisis.
Factors associated with increasing workplace violence included increasing hours worked per week and increasing interaction with the public, the investigators found.
The more workplace violence someone experienced, the greater the impact on their mental health, according to the report, which was published recently in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
“As successive public health emergencies unfold, it is crucial that we ensure that our public health workforce has been empowered to defuse the hostility, harassment and threats they encounter through training, workplace support and greater communication after incidents occur,” Tiesman said in a journal news release.
“It is also important to increase the capacity of public health departments to prevent, respond to and follow up on incidents experienced out in the field,” Tiesman added. “A better understanding is needed of the scope and consequences of workplace violence, as well as differences across the types of public health agencies, geographic locations, and sociodemographic groups.”
The American Nurses Association has more on workplace violence.
SOURCE: American Journal of Preventive Medicine, news release, Jan. 24, 2023