Objective: To assess the immediate and sustained psychological health of health care workers who were at high risk of exposure during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak.
Methods: At the peak of the 2003 SARS outbreak, we assessed health care workers in 2 acute care Hong Kong general hospitals with the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS-10). One year later, we reassessed these health care workers with the PSS-10, the 21-Item Depression and Anxiety Scale (DASS-21), and the Impact of Events Scale-Revised (IES-R). We recruited high-risk health care workers who practised respiratory medicine and compared them with nonrespiratory medicine workers, who formed the low-risk health care worker control group.
Results: In 2003, high-risk health care workers had elevated stress levels (PSS-10 score = 17.0) that were not significantly different from levels in low-risk health care worker control subjects (PSS-10 score = 15.9). More high-risk health care workers reported fatigue, poor sleep, worry about health, and fear of social contact, despite their confidence in infection-control measures. By 2004, however, stress levels in the high-risk group were not only higher (PSS-10 score = 18.6) but also significantly higher than scores among low-risk health care worker control subjects (PSS-10 score = 14.8, P < 0.05). In 2004, the perceived stress levels in the high-risk group were associated with higher depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress scores (P < 0.001). Posttraumatic stress scores were a partial mediator of the relation between the high risk of exposure to SARS and higher perceived stress.
Conclusions: Health care workers who were at high risk of contracting SARS appear not only to have chronic stress but also higher levels of depression and anxiety. Front-line staff could benefit from stress management as part of preparation for future outbreaks.