COVID-19 Research Q&A Series: Dr. Robert Maunder
Dr. Robert Maunder’s research supports mental health on the front lines of COVID-19
Robert Maunder, MD, FRCPC, is a professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto and head of Psychiatry Research at Sinai Health. In February 2020, Dr. Maunder received a grant from CIHR’s 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) rapid research funding competition to study whether enhanced peer support for health care workers during the COVID-19 outbreak helps alleviate long-term stress and burn-out among workers at Sinai Health.
What is the context for your research and what are you focused on accomplishing?
During the 2003 SARS outbreak, Mount Sinai Hospital provided support to workers and studied the impact of SARS on their mental health. We learned a lot, finding that the stress of the outbreak created an extended impact on mental health, with stress effects apparent for a couple of years. For the COVID-19 outbreak, we’re adding an extra layer of support for hospital staff in the form of peer support champions. Then we’ll evaluate how effective the support is for avoiding long-term burnout.
Why are you focusing on peer support champions?
Peer support champions are health care professionals – often nurses or social workers – who we train to interact with and coach teams of health care workers throughout the hospital. They drop into teams to provide support in many ways. We know from our prior work that when staff feel heard and are able to make suggestions and ask questions, their mental health is much better than when they feel isolated. We also know that interpersonal relationships that work well are often the key to resilience. We’re confident that peer support coaches will provide the nimble, adaptive liaison and support that health care workers need to stay healthy.
Can you explain more about the long-term mental health effects you’re working to avoid?
Our work following the SARS outbreak involved comparing hospitals that did not experience SARS to hospitals that did. We found that SARS did not lead to acute mental illness such as PTSD. But two years after the outbreak had ended the people working in SARS hospitals were having higher levels of anxiety, burnout, drinking or drug use, and more interpersonal problems. It is this chronic stress effect that we’re working to avoid with our current intervention.
How does the intervention work?
Peer support champions can’t be everywhere, so they’ll start in a small number of departments, where they’ll work for three months. We’re using a stepped wedge design, which means the peer support champions will move on to new departments over time. Our expectation is that when they move on, they’ll leave residual support behind them in the form of better interpersonal relationships and more supportive teams.
What will success look like once your work is done?
If we can get about 1,000 of our staff to fill out surveys every three months for two years, and show that staff who are receiving peer support have lower burnout scores than those who haven’t yet received the extra support, we’ll know we’ve had a positive effect.