Mental health issues quadruple among NHS workers during Covid-19 – major study finds

The largest study to date into the effect of the pandemic on the mental health of healthcare workers reveals an alarming rise in stress, anxiety, and depression.

UK was not fully prepared for the Covid pandemic

There has been a staggering 300% increase in NHS healthcare workers (HCWs) suffering from mental health symptoms since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This was the finding of a ground-breaking study which surveyed almost 2,773 workers from across all levels of the NHS. The research was carried out in April and May 2020, shortly after the first peak of the pandemic.

Lack of PPE is a major concern

The lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and pressure to work without suitable protection was flagged as a primary reason for deteriorating mental health. As was inadequate preparation for a pandemic, and poor communication about clinical practice.  

21% of HCWs reported having high levels of anxiety and depression after the first Covid peak. This compared to just 5% pre-pandemic, marking a 300% jump. 1 in 7 said they had high post-traumatic stress (PTSD) symptoms since the start of the health crisis.

Healthcare workers from ethnic minority backgrounds at greater risk

Another alarming finding of the study is that healthcare workers from ethnic minority backgrounds had a 50% greater risk of having high PTSD symptoms. NHS staff of ethnic minorities were also significantly more worried about a lack of PPE, contracting Covid-19 at work, and getting ill or dying from the virus, compared to non-ethnic minority HCWs.

It also found that women were more likely to suffer from issues like anxiety and depression compared to their male counterparts in the NHS, with 35% of female HCWs reporting mental health problems compared to 24% of male healthcare staff.

The research – the largest study into the impact the pandemic has had on health carers working for the NHS to date – was led by Dr. James Gilleen, lead researcher and senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Roehampton. The findings of the report were published in the British Journal of Psychiatry Open.

Urgent action required

Dr Gilleen said that while the findings of the research aren’t exactly shocking, it shows that mental health disorders are on a “staggering rise” and “urgent action” is required to provide the healthcare workforce with the support, resources and management they need.

“By learning that a lack of PPE, inadequate pandemic preparedness as well as poor training and up-to-date information on Covid-19 clinical practice are all primary factors associated with the most severe cases of mental health issues, we can hopefully help both the NHS and the UK government not only to address the urgent need for mental health support for HCWs, but also ensure that the same issues are not repeated in future waves of Covid-19 and other pandemics,” said Dr Gilleen.

The University of Roehampton’s research follows a slew of emerging evidence that shows the Covid-19 outbreak has been negatively affecting the mental health and wellbeing of NHS staff.

Inadequate provision of PPE is consistently flagged as a key influencer in declining wellbeing among NHS staff. A survey by BMA in May 2020 found that almost half of doctors have relied upon donated or self-bought PPE and two-thirds of doctors don’t feel fully protected.

‘No end in sight’

For over a year, NHS staff have been battling the pandemic, many of whom have been left exhausted. A lack of adequate training has been repeatedly pinned on deteriorating mental health among NHS staff. As a cardiac physiologist deployed as an ICU nurse in Birmingham said:

“We only had one day of training before we started, because they were desperate for extra staff to help.”

Efforts are in place to help NHS workers suffering from mental health issues. One resource is an easy-to-use NHS toolkit by NHS Employers, part of the NHS Confederation. The toolkit is designed to help NHS staff bridge the gap in understanding and enable them to talk openly and regularly about emotional health. The resource assesses the impact emotional wellbeing has on healthcare workers, their colleagues, and patients. It also enables users to action plans to enable more good days than bad.

Sick days among NHS staff have doubled in the past decade

Of course, mental health problems within the NHS workforce are not confined to the Covid-19 pandemic era. Sick days in the NHS caused by mental health problems have more than doubled in the past decade, well before the coronavirus health crisis gripped the health service.

To combat emotional issues conceived by over-worked healthcare employees in a grossly underfunded healthcare service, the UK’s healthcare budget needs to significantly rise.

Health Foundation sums up the figures required to make the improvements the NHS desperately needs:

“Over the coming years, evidence shows the health budget would need to rise by 4 per cent a year to meet rising costs and deliver any improvements in services, however, the government’s 5-year NHS settlement will see average increases of 3.4% just to the NHS England budget.”

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a freelance journalist and contributing editor to Left Foot Forward.

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