As the fragile recovery from Covid 19 in the UK continues to - tentatively - give us back some of the freedom we took for granted, it is important to remember that those on the healthcare frontline will need support to help them cope with the damage done to their mental health and wellbeing. And there isn’t a quick fix.
Independent think tank, the King’s Fund, recently published a research report: Covid-19 recovery and resilience: what can health and care learn from other disasters? asking: What comes next?
Drawing on multiple disasters from the century so far, the report looks at the valuable lessons learnt that could help with an effective recovery from this current global, deadly, pandemic.
They point to a need to prioritise workforce wellbeing, and that recovery will take significant time – we’re talking here of a timeframe covering many years. Key to this is this requirement to place mental health and wellbeing at the forefront of recovery efforts. Staff need to be given the time, space, and resources necessary for this to be effective.
It is easy to focus on those often singled-out as the heroes of the NHS; the most visible representations of the battle against the virus, the doctors and nurses on the coronavirus wards of hospitals. The King’s Fund research points out that “Evidence suggests that all health and care staff are at risk, regardless of the roles they took on during the pandemic”. From hospital porters to district nurses, care home staff to those working to support the bereaved and process the hugely elevated numbers of dead – all have been exposed to increased, sustained, emotional stress. Even the most resilient people need support.
Whilst we’re clearly not out of the woods yet, as we edge nervously into a changed world, many of us will be living with an enhanced level of stress. The additional uncertainty and insecurity can easily make other problems brought about by the pandemic (job worries, insecurity around housing etc.), unwelcome cumulative issues that could take people beyond the point where they would normally be able to cope.
The report indicates the potentially long-term risks created:
In addition to managing the initial burden, people who work in health and care are also at an increased risk of developing mental health problems following disasters, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety and compassion fatigue. In Fukushima, Japan, following the earthquake in 2011 this culminated in high levels of absenteeism among health care workers for up to 18 months after the disaster, with nurses experiencing significantly greater stress levels than the general population four years after the disaster.
The King's Fund
With a growing healthcare backlog - brought on by the sidelining of routine consultations, diagnoses, treatments and operations - hitting the headlines, the additional pressure will be sustained, with little chance for staff to recover.
The expectation is, of course, that the healthcare workforce will support us through the lengthy recovery period. We need to recognise that those we are asking to help us also need help themselves – potentially even more than we do.
As we try to get back to normal, additional pressure will be put upon this key group to deliver services effectively and fast - just when they least need it. Their wellbeing should be a priority.