Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare workers have been heralded as heroes. And they should be. But far less attention has been given to what it feels like to be a hero in this way. Over a year into this pandemic, the burnout, trauma, exhaustion, and mental health impact on healthcare workers across the globe is real and extensive.

We wanted to share our work in this area to bring awareness to this underserved need. Healthcare workers are heroes. But they are human, too. At Circles International, we support and accompany the doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers who have protected and cared for us throughout this pandemic. Our healthcare systems are only as strong as the people running them.

Lilongwe, Malawi

Starting in December, the number of COVID-19 cases has spiked in Malawi. In a country where there is less than one physician for every 54,000 citizens and a healthcare budget of only $77 per person per year, Malawi’s growing COVID-19 cases were staining an already overstretched healthcare system. Colleagues at the David Geffen School of Medicine’s Global Health Program at UCLA have a decade-long partnership with a local organization, and connected us with frontline workers. Led by Kruger Nyasulu, who grew up in Malawi, our team provides one-on-one coaching to this organization focused on strengthening Malawi’s healthcare system and service delivery. Our team offers support, accompaniment, and resilience skills to an exhausted yet deeply committed staff, working to combat the pandemic.

Iquitos, Peru

Deep in the Peruvian Amazon, encircled by rivers and rainforest, Iquitos is the world’s largest city that has no roads connecting it to the outside world. The remote city can only be reached by airplane or boat. Here, a local hospital serves this remote community which has been particularly devastated by COVID-19. Lacking in PPE and other essential medical equipment, 25% of the hospital staff had tested positive for COVID and the staff was reeling from the death of many colleagues. Through a long-term partnership with the Global Health Program at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, the hospital was connected to Circles as the hospital’s staff voiced a need for mental health support. Our team facilitated a training for the hospital’s staff, including both frontline workers and the leadership team. In a community where there is so much resilience already present, our team worked to lift up that resilience and highlight it as a tool for mental health.

Minnesota, USA

As a result of centuries of systemic discrimination and oppression, Native and First Nations communities in the United States have been hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic, with indigenous Americans dying from COVID at twice the rate of white Americans. In the rural corner of Minnesota, serving the Grand Portage Reservation, Cooks County Department of Health and Human Services took the rare step of investing in their staff to ensure they were prepared to best serve their communities. Our Circles team created a proprietary program, including full-team trainings, smaller group workshops, and team-based coaching. The program addressed themes such as decolonizing healthcare and collective resilience. Cook County Public Health and Human Services inspires us to envision a world where every department of health invests in supporting their staff’s mental health and wellbeing, and they are modeling the way. We see the need for this work as we expand our work with Health Departments across the country, from the Bay Area to Maine, and we are excited to see leaders pioneer a new path forward.