COVID-19 intensifies emotional demands on healthcare workers

Health professionals – doctors, nurses, nursing assistants, paramedics, ambulance workers – are at the vanguard of the battle against COVID-19. They are the ones dealing with sick people, triaging, testing and treating them. They are the ones confronting suffering and death. While some of their colleagues have already lost their lives in this battle, health professionals worldwide are emphasising the impact the mounting number of COVID-19 cases is having on their mental health. They are talking about the emotional demands of being on the front line – an element of these workers’ working conditions often forgotten, and even neglected, because it is ‘intangible’, ‘subjective’ and ‘still not well understood’.

Emotional demands impact well-being

Every job is, to a greater or lesser degree, subject to several demands; not only emotional demands but physical and social demands as well as work intensity and working hours. All of these influence, sooner or later, workers’ health and well-being. Emotional demands affect workers’ self-reported health, levels of presenteeism (working while sick), sleep quality and subjective well-being, according to Eurofound research based on the European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS). [1]

Are such demands felt the same way by everyone? We might not have a definitive answer to that question, but the EWCS data show that people working in the health sector or in health-related occupations are more likely to report being exposed to emotional demands. These are quintessentially emotionally demanding jobs, requiring workers to:

  • hide their feelings
  • handle angry clients, customers and patients
  • deal with situations that are emotionally disturbing

In the current crisis, we can only imagine the unprecedented levels that these kinds of demands are reaching.

Female workers more affected

It is important to recognise that the COVID-19 crisis is affecting female workers disproportionately. According to the EU Labour Force Survey, in 2018, the human health activities sector in the EU27 employed over 12 million individuals, representing 6% of the total employed population. Some 75% of these are women. Recent Eurofound research on gender equality at work shows that men and women in occupations related to health and care (female-dominated occupations) fare relatively poorly regarding many dimensions of job quality, such as posture-related risks, biochemical risks, work intensity (working to tight deadlines or at high speed), long working hours and atypical hours, just to name a few. [2]

Resources can balance the risks

But it is not only the demands that matter at work. The resources at our disposal also determine, to some extent, our health and well-being. Social resources – support from colleagues and supervisors and recognition for work done – matter hugely. Work resources, including the ability to control one’s job and to participate in the decisions that matter for our work, are also important. So, too, are adequate rewards, the feeling of being paid appropriately and having good career prospects and job security. Eurofound research on the links between working conditions and workers’ health show that all such resources are important but that social support counts the most.

In that context, we should not forget that over the past few years, industrial action has been staged in many countries (in France, Germany, Portugal and the UK, for example) by doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals protesting about the consequences of austerity measures imposed after the financial crisis: the reduction of resources necessary to perform their work properly, being asked to work more hours for the same pay and poor career prospects, among many other issues. At this moment, in countries where an emergency state has been declared because of COVID-19, strike is not even an option. It is all hands on deck.

The bottom line

The COVID-19 crisis is exposing some truths about work that are often forgotten. It is not just the number of digits in the pay cheque or the type of employment contract that matters, other aspects count too. The emotional burden of work is the critical aspect for health workers right now.

As for the rest of us, we should stay put, keep working from home if possible, and do whatever we can to reduce the emotional demands on health workers, law-enforcement workers and emergency workers, as well as the distribution and retail workers keeping open the supply chains for our essential goods. Colleagues, managers, families and the rest of us must give them the social support to keep going. At the end of this, we must not forget to recognise their work. Because they have just saved our lives.

Image © faboi/Shutterstock


  1. ^ Eurofound (2019), Working conditions and workers’ health , Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.
  2. ^ Eurofound (2020), Gender equality at work , European Working Conditions Survey 2015 series, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.


Research carried out prior to the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union on 31 January 2020, and published subsequently, may include data relating to the 28 EU Member States. Following this date, research only takes into account the 27 EU Member States (EU28 minus the UK), unless specified otherwise.

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