Emergency medical work impacts numerous aspects of family life, including marital and parental roles, leisure and social opportunities, and home schedules and rhythms. Here's how to take control.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many things, big and small. The way we queue when buying groceries. The way we wash our hands. The global economy. And it has had a major impact on healthcare workers on the front line.

“The outbreak of coronavirus disease has changed the way in which healthcare workers not only see themselves but also the way in which they learn to interact with their families and colleagues,” says Harsha Maharaj, a clinical psychologist at Mediclinic Sandton. “These staff members are essential, but worried – they are constantly in danger of being infected, and just by going to work, they are putting their families at risk too.”

If you are overwhelmed or anxious during this time, this is entirely normal. “For these staff, and their families, there will be a constant degree of anger and fear that they will have to deal with. It is important that everyone involved acknowledges this and understands the need to be kind. These emotions are never comfortable, but they can be managed.”

We are living through a new normal, she explains. “When staff go home each day they have to take extraordinary safety precautions to ensure that their families are safe: they can’t have any physical contact with family members, they must have a shower immediately and wash and sanitise all personal items and clothing.”

But on top of those measures, there is the emotional toll to plan for. A prolonged period of social distancing and self-isolation can lead to resentment and alienation between family members. To counter this, Maharaj says it is crucial to be open and honest about how you are feeling.

“Never feel shame or guilt because you are not able to be there all the time for everyone,” she says. “Expect to feel anxious and share your fears and anxieties with your colleagues and family – help them to help you, by sharing openly.”

Plan for the possibility of infection. “What happens next? What does it mean for us? These are crucial questions,” Maharaj explains. “Discuss with your family what this would mean for your spouse and children. Self-isolation comes with new protocols and patterns in the home – how will this change the existing routines and structure at home? Talk about the ground rules regarding childcare arrangements, routines and structures. How will these be adjusted?”

Plan proactively to handle the stress that will result, together as a family, as this will help you stay united. “Talk about what your family members know about stress, and their own natural responses or coping mechanisms. How will they react? Exercise, healthy eating, regular sleep – ask them to talk about what helps them. It’s okay if they don’t have an answer – you can work these out together. What matters is that you support them, and that they support you.”