This study highlights the resiliency of HCWs and, despite this trait, the potential that working during the SARS outbreak had a substantial negative impact on a statistically significant number of people. The evaluation of mediating factors suggests both systemic and individual targets for interventions to buffer the adverse effects of an extraordinary outbreak of infectious disease. Systemically, enhanced support and training may reduce burnout and posttraumatic stress. Individually, interventions that reduce maladaptive coping may decrease prolonged suffering.
The differences in adverse outcomes between Toronto and Hamilton HCWs were significant but small. However, further analysis suggests that the long-term impact of SARS has not been trivial. In particular, a categorical analysis () shows that long-term adverse outcomes in Toronto HCWs occurred at a prevalence ≈50%–100% higher than in Hamilton HCWs. Furthermore, these outcomes may have a systemic impact, since SARS-affected HCWs reported reducing patient contact and hours of healthcare work as well as more frequent sick absences and an increase in behavior that could affect function.
These findings can be framed in terms of their potential value for the future. If the emergence of a new infectious disease is likely to increase the prevalence of significant distress in HCWs by 50%, to double the number of HCWs who are reducing their clinical practice or calling in sick, and if these difficulties will persist for >1–2 years after the outbreak's resolution, we want to learn from the SARS experience to try to buffer this negative impact. This discussion, therefore, addresses the identified mediators of SARS-related distress in HCWs and how these can guide preparation for pandemic influenza and other infectious disease outbreaks.
Exposure to high-intensity and high-risk work settings (such as intensive care units and emergency department work) and direct exposure to infected patients were not the primary determinants of adverse psychological outcomes. In fact, trends toward lower burnout in intensive care unit workers and less general psychological distress in emergency department workers were noted. These trends may be explained by the resilience of HCWs who choose this type of work and are consistent with the findings that longer healthcare experience was protective. We also found that the extent of various forms of distress was increased in Toronto HCWs, irrespective of their degree of contact with SARS patients, which implies that factors that are associated with the hospital environment as a whole and healthcare work in general during the outbreak were provocative.
Both systemic and personal variables were associated with persisting distress. In contrast to studies of distress during and shortly after the SARS outbreak (6,9,12
), job stress related to conflict, workload, and conscription to new duties did not mediate long-term outcome. However, perceived adequacy of training, moral support, and protection were associated with better outcome. When the lessons of SARS are applied to pandemic planning, effective staff support may be a primary target to bolster the resilience of HCWs who will face future outbreaks. This observation is consistent with ones made during the SARS outbreak regarding the benefits of responsive communication (29
), opportunities for facilitated reflection on normal emotional responses to extraordinary stress, and opportunities for HCWs to contribute to decision-making in the workplace (10,30
Effective support benefits from careful planning and preparation before an outbreak, which the SARS situation did not allow. For example, effective moral or psychological support typically occurs in the context of trusted professional and institutional relationships, which should ideally be established before the outbreak situation. In particular, burnout has been identified as 1 of the most substantial health-related problems facing nurses (31
). Because future outbreaks are likely to increase job strain and burnout, the prepandemic period is a critical time to attend to organizational characteristics that are known to buffer burnout, which include reducing patient-to-nurse ratios (32
) and increasing organizational characteristics that increase nurses' autonomy, flexibility, control over practice (33
), and perceived empowerment (34
). The results of our study suggest that supportive interventions may be especially important for HCWs with fewer years of experience, who were more likely to experience prolonged psychological distress. Opportunities for mentorship or "buddying" with more experienced colleagues may be useful (35
The personal variables that contributed to adverse outcomes were maladaptive coping through avoidance, hostile confrontation, and self-blame, and in the instance of general psychological distress, attachment anxiety. Although a review of interventions to modify coping style is beyond the scope of this paper, we note that organizational approaches to support staff and the individual experience of workers coping with extraordinary events are related. Hospital-based interventions to support staff may also promote adaptive coping. For example, engaging staff in collaborative planning for future outbreaks may reduce the tendency to cope by means of avoidant strategies and may enhance coping through problem-solving and peer-support. Anger and blame directed toward others (hostile confrontation) or oneself (self-blame) may be reduced in a working environment that fosters positive working relationships through effective leadership (36
). Attachment anxiety is a common, relatively enduring, and stable interpersonal style within close relationships (37
), which is known to be associated with sensitivity to stress under many conditions (38,39
). Attachment anxiety is probably not a sensible target for hospital-based interventions to buffer the impact of systemic stresses, but it is a marker of those at greater risk for general psychological distress.
The results of this study also have implications for mitigating the effects of an infectious outbreak in the postoutbreak period. Because the duration of perceived risk in HCWs after the resolution of SARS is correlated with the severity of outcome, identifying and supporting HCWs who are at the highest risk for multiple and persistent psychological and occupational consequences of an outbreak may be possible by identifying HCWs whose perceived risk has not returned to normal within a few months after the event. Support programs, it would appear, need to be longer term to deal with ongoing residual effects after an outbreak. Programs directed toward healthy lifestyles, diet, exercise, and smoking cessation may also be important after the occurrence of an outbreak such as SARS to provide support to staff. Furthermore, for pandemic planning, the likelihood of prolonged subjective distress in a substantial percentage of HCWs should be factored into surge capacity modeling during and after the pandemic, particularly because distress is associated with reduced healthcare work.
Our conclusions are limited by the study method. With respect to generalizability, despite a response rate of 39%, the representativeness survey suggests that HCWs who participated were similar to nonparticipants. HCWs who had contact with SARS patients are overrepresented in the study sample, which may be because the study had greater salience for those persons, but study participants and nonparticipants did not differ in the subjective impact attributed to the SARS experience. A further limitation is that self-reports of SARS experiences do not provide an objective evaluation of actual differences in the training, protection, or support that HCWs received. Regardless of the limitations, the Impact of SARS Study provides a window on the long-term effects of working during times of extraordinary infectious risk.