Prioritizing mental health for healthcare workers

by Dr. Anna Courie - Director, Responder Wellness, FirstNet Program at AT&T

At the heart of healthcare is the commitment to care for people. Central to that ethos is compassionate care for individuals wherever they are on their wellness journey. Sometimes, healthcare professionals forget they are also individuals on a wellness journey.  

Healthcare workers and first responders are strong, no doubt. But, they face complex health and wellness challenges. Their daily experiences and images take a toll, manifesting in a variety of ways, such as trouble sleeping, appetite changes, emotional and physical exhaustion.

Overall, first responders experience higher rates of depression, post-traumatic stress, burnout, anxiety and more1, compared to the general population. About 68% of nurses have reported that they put the health, safety and wellness of their patients before their own needs2. And studies show that emotional stress, burnout and post-traumatic stress are becoming increasingly common amongst nurses, resulting in retention issues.

Unfortunately, this also means suicide rates are also climbing.3,4,5

With that in mind, AT&T created the FirstNet Health and Wellness program three years ago to bring  together public safety and healthcare leaders from across the country and form the FirstNet Health and Wellness Coalition (Coalition).

Made up of over 2 dozen national organizations and experts, the Coalition has met regularly to discuss and examine the landscape of public safety wellness in America. Our group analyzed data, literature, and reports and conducted a survey of first responders to assess their health and wellness needs.

The work has culminated in the publication of the First Responder Wellness White Paper: “Helping the Helpers:  Lessons Learned and Outcomes to Date from the FirstNet Health and Wellness Coalition.”

The paper outlines five key recommendations.

  1. Leaders must engage. First responders and frontline healthcare workers want their supervisors to demonstrate and model behaviors of mental health and wellness practices, rather than just talk about them.

  2. Leadership must fully integrate wellness into all levels of training. They must incorporate wellness into training throughout a career and beyond. This means starting early, continuing through service and extending to retirement.

  3. Allocate funding and resources equitably: While grants are available and important, they are not always sustainable or equal across all public safety professions.

  4. Establish strong standards. Implementation will increase if standards and services are accessible, affordable, confidential (when necessary), part of the organizational culture and do not endanger careers.

  5. Increase communication. Wellness must be part of the broader discussion nationally and locally, within associations and their local chapters, hospitals, departments, agencies, 9-1-1 call centers, the halls of government – everywhere.

This white paper is a solid foundation for organizations and stakeholders to begin building sustainable wellness efforts. We challenge the healthcare community, at every level, to take action, amplify awareness and prioritize the mental health of healthcare workers.

1 Purvis, M., Fullencamp, L. & Docherty, M. (2020). Animal Assisted Therapy on Law Enforcement Mental Health: A Therapy Dog Implementation Guide. Bowling Green University.

2 American Nurses Association (2017). Executive Summary: American Nurses Association Health Risk Appraisal. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from

3 Shanafelt TD, Hasan O, Dyrbye LN, Sinsky C, Satele D, Sloan J, et al. Changes in burnout and satisfaction with work-life balance in physicians and the general US working population between 2011 and 2014. Mayo Clin Proc. 2015;90(12):1600–13.

4 Iacovides A, Fountoulakis KN, Kaprinis S, Kaprinis G. The relationship between job stress, burnout and clinical depression. J Affect Disord. 2003;75(3):209–21.

5 Glasberg, A. & Norberg, A. (2007). Burnout and stress of conscience among healthcare personnel. Journal of Advanced Nursing.