The COVID-19 pandemic has raised awareness of the alarming prevalence of mental, neurological and psychosocial disorders and the importance of giving them appropriate attention, especially for medical professionals.  Globally, more than 300 million people of all ages suffer from depression, which remains a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 800 000 people take their own lives every year. So, with the elevated levels of stress, anxiety and depression that many have suffered during COVID-19 due to prolonged isolation, grief, job insecurity and uncertainty about the future, it is encouraging to know that governments, corporates and societies are starting to prioritise mental health and well-being.

At the height of the pandemic, South Africa experienced a gross shortage of healthcare workers to cover shifts in hospitals. Limited resources and an increasing workload inevitably challenged medical professionals’ ability to perform optimally.

Already overburdened

According to a 2013 study, even before the worst onslaught of the pandemic South Africa’s public healthcare system was historically overburdened, with medical professionals facing burnout. At a webinar earlier this year, Dr Saeeda Paruk, psychiatry lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, reported that anxiety disorders in healthcare workers have increased significantly during the pandemic, with an average prevalence rate of 44%.

Often starting during their studies, medical professionals face combined challenges of long hours and sleep deprivation. They also feel the pressure of social isolation while caring for patients in resource-constrained environments, paying off student loans and financially providing for extended family. This, together with other everyday stressors, creates a perfect storm that impacts young doctors’ physical and mental health. Society expects doctors to be all-knowing, well-rounded, high-achieving individuals, and often doctors too expect this of themselves. However, healthcare providers have a set of financial challenges that are unique to them.

Mental well-being vs financial wellness

A clear link between financial and mental well-being is the belief that financial wellness depends on income. The truth is that those in the higher-income groups experience even more financial worries. In fact, they suffer more from panic attacks and depression than any of the other income groups. The lesson? It’s not how much you earn that dictates your financial wellbeing – it’s what you do with it.

Despite the high income that comes with their profession, many medical workers are not equipped to manage their personal finances. In addition to the fact that they start earning a living later than their cohorts, they face the risk of losing their ability to work due to burnout.

‘Biggest health emergency of our time’

COVID-19 is the biggest public health emergency of our time, and it has not spared medical practices. The pandemic negatively impacted not only many businesses, but medical professionals as well. They suffered tremendous financial losses due to elective surgeries having been put on hold and fewer face-to-face consultations. The lesson is that earning power is not enough, and even medical professionals need to have financial experts to take care of their financial matters, investments and wealth management.

One of the key ways to help healthcare professionals with their financial well-being is to offer them financial education opportunities. You may be a high-income earner, but the right skills and habits to manage finances successfully may not come naturally. The introduction of lunch-hour seminars or flexible webinars on topics such as home loan management, debt reduction, retirement planning and student loan repayment will go a long way in empowering healthcare professionals to stay on top of their finances.

Lives can be saved

Addressing mental health is the right thing to do, regardless of the stigma, the fear and the perceived consequences. Medical professionals who fear for their career or reputation avoid seeking help, running a risk to themselves and their patients.

Those who provide support for medical professionals have a responsibility to reach out when they see signs of depression or burnout. Encouraging doctors to consult a mental health professional could help them cope with their extraordinary stress and help save lives.  – Health-e News

• Coenie Smith is the National Manager: Medical Professionals at Nedbank