Written by: Casey Chan '23
Edited by: Priya Bhanot '23
At Brown, COVID-19 testing, food delivery, and transportation is made possible by essential workers on campus. You might see familiar images of health workers wearing masks at the OMAC, and Brown Dining Services workers placing food in bags to give to students.
These images at Brown are representative of the struggle to maintain vital infrastructure and keep workers safe. As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, essential workers have consistently put their lives at risk to provide for the population. Each state has their own guidelines defining essential work. Generally, these individuals are those whose work involves critical infrastructure. Among these groups are frontline healthcare workers. While some states have been reopening businesses and restaurants, essential workers have been exposed for long periods of time to stress regarding COVD-19.
In a recent study performed by Li, Ma, and Wang, et al., 1830 individuals involved in frontline care in China were contacted via a randomly sampled, hospital-based survey. It was conducted from January 29, 2020 to February 3, 2020, when the confirmed cases of COVID-19 exceeded 10,000 in China.
Using standard scales for anxiety and mental health (for example, the 7-item Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD-7) scale) the research team determined symptom severity levels for different individuals. The scores were self-reported. Out of the 1830 respondents, a large proportion (76.7%) were women. According to the survey, a considerable proportion of participants reported symptoms of depression (50.4%), anxiety (44.6%), insomnia (34.0%), and distress (distress (71,5%). Compared to workers from Wuhan (which is in the Hubei Province), workers outside of the Hubei Province reported less symptoms of distress. This may have corresponded with the high influx of cases in Wuhan at the time. Besides personal danger, other possible sources of distress for these workers are possible shortages of supplies and overwhelming workloads.
These results seem to mirror a survey, conducted in 2004, concerning the responses of healthcare workers to the SARS epidemic. This survey’s results suggests that 68% of workers reported a high level of stress, and 57% were found to have experienced psychological distress.
This survey, one of the few of its kind at the time, suggests that healthcare workers are experiencing psychological burden and distress. It emphasizes the importance of continued support and assistance services for our essential workers.
As Brown University plans to open its doors to students in the spring, and many individuals have settled into routines for the fall semester, it is more important now than ever to consider the University’s healthcare and other essential workers. Brown has defined essential workers as individuals in critical positions because their responsibilities are necessary despite emergency and/or administrative closure. There may be more positions opening up soon, albeit slowly.
While there are psychological assistance services, via telephone, internet, and other apps that can be used by essential workers, there is very little information about evidence-based mental health interventions for these individuals.
Essential workers are responsible for many of the services that are often taken for granted. For example, Travis Smith is a Stop and Shop employee who was interviewed by Rhode Island Monthly. While most shoppers seemed to obey guidelines, he reported that there were still struggles to enforce social distancing guidelines in the store. Individuals also visited the store often, which increases risk of exposure over time. In his words, “I guess just that it is a tough time for everyone, as a worker or a shopper. It’s stressful for both sides and we just all need to do the best we can to make it easier for everyone.”
It is suggested that, at the moment, the best way to help essential workers is to limit exposure and follow social distancing guidelines. There are also other stories of individuals helping essential workers by running errands for them or delivering groceries (as especially health care workers are often bust and isolated). In one instance, a NYC woman offered her monthly metro card to any essential workers who needed transportation in the city. Small acts of kindness may help to offset the burden of stress mentioned by Lai, Ma, and Wang, et al.
Together, we can overcome the consequences of this disease and lessen the load for brave essential workers.
 Lai, J., Ma, S., Wang, Y. Factors Associated with Mental Health Outcome Among Health Care Workers Exposed to Coronavirus Disease 2019. JAMA Netw. Open. 2020, 3(3), 1-12.
 Tam, C.W.C., Pang, E.P.F., Lam, L.C.W., Chiu, H.F.K. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Hong Kong in 2003: stress and psychological impact among frontline healthcare workers. Cambridge University Press. 2004, 34 (7), 1197-1204.
 Brown Vice President of University Human Resources. Essential Positions Policy. Brown.edu [Internet]. Published 2020 April 22 [Cited 2020 November 4]. Available from: https://www.brown.edu/about/administration/policies/sites/brown.edu.about.administration.policies/files/uploads/1.-POL08.10.04-Essential-Positions-Policy-APPROVED-4.22.20_UD6.19.20Acc.pdf.
 Nilsson, C. COVID CHRONICLES: GROCERY STORE WORKER TRAVIS SMITH. Rhode Island Monthly [Internet]. Published 2020 April 27 [Cited 2020 November 4]. Available from: https://www.rimonthly.com/covid-chronicles-grocery-store-worker-travis-smith/.
 Youn, S. 4 ways you can help essential workers. The Lily [Internet]. Published 2020 March 31 [Cited 2020 November 4].Available from: https://www.thelily.com/4-ways-you-can-help-essential-workers/.
[Image Citation] Loar, R.A. (2020). File:Essential Thanks.JPG. Retrieved 2020, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?search=essential+workers&title=Special%3ASearch&go=Go&ns0=1&ns6=1&ns12=1&ns14=1&ns100=1&ns106=1#/media/File:Essential_Thanks.jpg.