MASStrong for Healthcare Workers Participant Shares Story

‘It was like getting on a Zoom call with co-workers to talk about the day’:

Like many frontline healthcare workers, Karleen Winter experienced unprecedented levels of stress in her life during the first year of the pandemic. As a personal care attendant (PCA) and certified nursing assistant (CNA), Karleen assists people living with disabilities in bathing, getting dressed, housekeeping, preparing meals, and managing medical tasks such as changing catheters and administering insulin. Applying her skills in clients’ homes means that they’re able to live safely at home rather than in congregate care or an institution.

During the pandemic, 60-hour work weeks became the norm as Karleen picked up additional hours to cover shifts left vacant by colleagues who weren’t able to keep working during the pandemic. One of Karleen’s clients, who relied on four PCA’s for daily care, lost two of them in the first months of the pandemic. Karleen worked extra hours to ensure that the woman received the care she needed to remain living at home.

While Karleen appreciated the extra money she made working overtime—it enabled her to finally buy her own home—it also meant that her daughter needed to move in with her father “because I was working so much that I was never home,” Karleen said.

Such stressors led Karleen to take part in the MASStrong for Healthcare Workers pilot program, which provided group-based mental healthcare support to approximately 60 nursing home aides, home health workers, personal care attendants, and long-term care aides working in Massachusetts in November and December 2022. In the groups, she found the support she needed to process the upheaval caused by the pandemic.

“It was helpful to get things off my chest and talk to people who dealt with loss throughout the pandemic,” Karleen said. “I think the group helped people that had a lot of, I guess, emotional trauma through the pandemic.”

Karleen said she treated the groups as therapy sessions. She appreciated the structure provided by the facilitators, who led them in relaxation exercises and set out ground rules that encouraged everyone to speak up. “I really liked that we had rules and we would let each other express ourselves without interrupting,” said Karleen.

She also liked that participants were discouraged from downplaying or minimizing their experiences by saying that they’re no different than any other group members. “Everybody’s experience is different, even if it’s just a little bit, because every client is different,” said Karleen. “But we still had a lot of the same things in common that we go through, so it was nice not to feel alone in some of those aspects.”

Although the groups are structured, they offered enough flexibility that Karleen likened the sessions to “getting on a Zoom call with your co-workers to talk about your day.”

In a job where she largely works alone and does not have co-workers to vent to about the daily frustrations common to working as a PCA or CNA, Karleen said the group-based support helped her emotionally. Not only would she attend future sessions, but she would also recommend them to others in her field.

“The main reason I liked the group is because I don’t have anybody in my life who experiences the same thing as me. I don’t have anybody to say, ‘Oh, I’ve been cleaning somebody’s house all day, now I gotta go home and do my own,’ Like, nobody gets it,” Karleen said, laughing. “I mean, of course I talk to my husband. He’s a great support, but he doesn’t get it. He’s an exterminator. He does not do what I do. I mean, I keep people alive in their homes and he goes into homes to get rid of things! It is the exact opposite of what I do.”

The MASStrong for Healthcare Workers pilot program consisted of three group-based mental health sessions using the GPS model, an evidence-based model of group care that draws on cognitive behavioral and interpersonal therapies, mindfulness-based stress reduction, motivational interviewing and psycho-social education. The sessions were led by two facilitators certified in using the GPS model. Offered in partnership with the Betsy Lehman Center for Patient Safety, MASStrong for Healthcare Workers is funded by the Commonwealth with funds from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The program was launched to mitigate the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on frontline healthcare workers, who have experienced elevated rates of depression, PTSD, insomnia, and other mental health issues and dramatic increases in their rates of job-related illness and injury and moral injury that have resulted in steep staffing shortages that continue to persist throughout the healthcare industry.

MASStrong for Healthcare Workers will soon be enrolling up to 1,300 frontline healthcare workers in a new round of group-based mental health support sessions that will be offered via Zoom. Sessions will be available in English and Spanish. Each session will last 90 minutes and participants who complete a survey after each session will be given a gift card. Information on how to register will be posted to our website soon.