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Supporting the psychological wellbeing of healthcare staff key to pandemic recovery

23 Mar Supporting the psychological wellbeing of healthcare staff key to pandemic recovery

On the day that the nation reflects on one year since the first stay-at-home order of the Covid-19 pandemic, the British Psychological Society is calling for the psychological needs of healthcare staff to be front and centre of the nation’s recovery.

Coronavirus has cost more than 140,000 lives in the UK over the last year, and we will be falling silent at 12pm on 23 March to remember those we have lost. The toll is unimaginable, and the effects so wide reaching that there is no one in the country whose life has not been profoundly affected by the pandemic.

There are few groups that have been impacted as significantly as the healthcare staff working on the frontline to treat Covid-19 patients and keep the NHS functioning during an unprecedented period.

Psychologists have played a central role in developing the NHS’s early initiatives on staff support in response to the pandemic, including new wellbeing hubs, and it is vital that psychological expertise is incorporated into all future developments.

The recent NHS staff survey results showed a further increase in work-related stress levels in the NHS, and likelihood of staff burnout is only going to rise as the effects of working through the pandemic become more apparent.

Risks are particularly high for the 40.3 per cent of NHS staff who were already experiencing stress at work before the pandemic hit, and for those working in intensive care units with the sickest Covid-19 patients.

It is key that the focus is now on rebuilding the NHS as psychologically healthy and resilient, supporting staff wellbeing on a cultural and organisational, as well as individual, level.

Dr Julie Highfield, consultant clinical psychologist in Wales’ largest critical care unit and wellbeing project director for the Intensive Care Society, said:

“One year on, I welcome the progress in involving psychologists in staff wellbeing initiatives, however much of the focus is on individual mental health. Although this is helpful in part, it’s not the whole picture. When I meet with staff what they describe does not fit neatly into common mental health pathways, it is the way chronic excessive workload has changed their relationship with work.

If we just focus on mental health provision and individual resilience, we miss the systemic factors that contribute to the experience of work such as workplace culture, leadership and sufficient staffing, education, equipment, and facilities. As psychologists, we should also support workforce sustainability for a future healthier NHS and social care sector.

We need to utilise the skills, knowledge and evidence base of Psychologists to help organisations to understand how to provide the core conditions to thrive at work, therefore reducing the risk of psychological harm.”

Dr Adrian Neal, chair of the BPS Division of Clinical Psychology’s Leadership and Management Faculty, added:

“As we mark the first anniversary of the UK’s pandemic lockdown, it seems a natural opportunity to reflect, take stock of the impact and look forward.

Right now we are seeing an exhausted workforce, an increase in grief, burnout and more acute mental health difficulties (though less than we had expected), as well as changes in how people are relating to their work, peers, communities, and employers.

It is widely recognised that employee and organisational wellbeing is going to be vital to the sustainability of our public sector systems, and resources have been mobilised at pace in an attempt to mitigate perceived needs.

Perhaps the most useful thing we can do as psychologists is to encourage a calm and evidenced approach to fully understanding and formulating the psychosocial impact the pandemic in all of its unfolding complexity.

If we can do this, psychologists will play an important role in supporting both individuals and organisations in how they recover, adapt and grow in the years to come.”

The BPS’s Covid-19 Staff Wellbeing Group produced a document on ‘The psychological needs of healthcare staff as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic’. It calls on leaders and managers to provide:

Visible leadership
A clear communication strategy
Consistent access to physical safety needs
Access to pre-existing methods of peer support
Formal psychological care in stepped ways
Innovative but coordinated psychological care