Exploring the mental health impact of Covid-19 on healthcare workers

This week at HETT Reset an interesting panel discussion focused on the impact the Covid-19 pandemic was having on the mental health of healthcare workers.

The session, hosted by Heather Caudle, Asarebea Adi, Mark Radford, Lucy Warner and Aasha Cowey, discussed the platforms and services that had been made available to NHS staff and the impact that working through the pandemic had on their mental wellbeing.

Adi, assistant national officer for the NHS’ largest union Unison, explained that a survey of over 14,000 NHS staff taken in late 2020 showed that 51% had sought mental health support since the outbreak of the virus. Among the most common sources of stress cited were a fear of contracting the virus, a lack of socialisation due to being unable to see family and friends, and difficulty adapting to working from home. 25% also reported they had suffered a direct financial impact as a result of the virus.

To support healthcare workers, an online coronavirus hub is available to offer guidance and information, as well as a dedicated health and wellbeing site. Unison also has its own welfare charity called There for You.

Additionally, since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, Unison has called on the government to implement a long-term funding package to cover immediate and ongoing support needs and recovery in 2021/2022 and beyond. The aim is to make counselling available for all staff, to give them a fast track to treatment and to offer them paid time off for however long is needed to recover from the mental impact of working throughout the pandemic. Adi expressed that she is confident the government will “do the right thing.”

The session offered an insight into the support currently available to staff, highlighting Practitioner Health, a free, confidential mental health service available to doctors and dentists. It allows them to choose the clinician they see in order to ensure that they aren’t a co-worker or someone they know. The app also allows them to schedule their appointments so as to not coincide with their shifts.

Warner noted that the top three reasons NHS staff usually seek support are depression, anxiety and stress. Other notable factors are PTSD, burnout and bereavement. She also offered her experience with encountering medical professionals questioning their vocation and whether they wanted to remain in their roles once the Covid-19 pandemic was over.

Following on from this, Cowey described her experience with dealing with anxiety. She explained that when she was younger, the condition caused her to develop tics and lead to bullying. She felt that there was a stigma surrounding mental health and that when experiencing anxiety, you “feel like a failure” and as if it’s “all your fault.” Cowey urges that any staff suffering in silence “be kind” to themselves—her advice is to stop doomscrolling, and to take a break from the news and social media if necessary.

Cowey stressed the importance of making it known how to access support; many NHS workers will be experiencing mental health issues for the first time and need to know that help is available.

Adding on to this, Radford said, “None of us are immune from the impact of [Covid-19].” He explained that working from home had made the work/life balance difficult, and that the mental health impact of working through the virus would be felt for years to come.

The speakers noted a number of other factors that are negatively impacting healthcare workers right now. Many are having to make difficult decisions on a regular basis that may leave them questioning whether they made the right choice. Furthermore, some staff have quit due to having dependents to take care of. The closure of schools and need to look after children was cited during the session as a reason that some staff have left their roles.

Caudle also noted the impact of the pandemic on nursing students—in order to cope with the initial wave, they were brought on to support patients during the early days of the Covid crisis. This has impacted people’s training and added an additional stress factor to their learning.

Warner offered reassurance that what people are feeling is completely normal for an “out-of-the-norm” situation, but stressed that if you are feeling “abnormal” or like you “need support,” then to seek support.

Adi said, “No-one has had to deal with a pandemic like this before—it’s new to everybody.”