Royal Society Publishing

The experience of the 2003 SARS outbreak as a traumatic stress among frontline healthcare workers in Toronto: lessons learned

Robert Maunder


The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in the first half of 2003 in Canada was unprecedented in several respects. Understanding the psychological impact of the outbreak on healthcare workers, especially those in hospitals, is important in planning for future outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases. This review draws upon qualitative and quantitative studies of the SARS outbreak in Toronto to outline the factors that contributed to healthcare workers' experiencing the outbreak as a psychological trauma. Overall, it is estimated that a high degree of distress was experienced by 29–35% of hospital workers. Three categories of contributory factors were identified. Relevant contextual factors were being a nurse, having contact with SARS patients and having children. Contributing attitudinal factors and processes were experiencing job stress, perceiving stigmatization, coping by avoiding crowds and colleagues, and feeling scrutinized. Pre–existing trait factors also contributed to vulnerability. Lessons learned from the outbreak include: (i) that effort is required to mitigate the psychological impact of infection control procedures, especially the interpersonal isolation that these procedures promote; (ii) that effective risk communication is a priority early in an outbreak; (iii) that healthcare workers may have a role in influencing patterns of media coverage that increase or decrease morale; (iv) that healthcare workers benefit from resources that facilitate reflection on the effects of extraordinary stressors; and (v) that healthcare workers benefit from practical interventions that demonstrate tangible support from institutions.