Not enough is being done to protect the mental health of NHS staff


Dr James Gilleen of the University of Roehampton and his Covida Project team have today renewed warnings of the ongoing risks to the mental health of NHS staff. The NHS is now facing rising hospitalisations, an endless backlog of operations, and the impending threat of winter flu, yet many of its staff remain traumatised from the first wave of infections. 

“Healthcare workers are already exhausted and burnt-out; they are traumatised from their experiences of working during the pandemic. During the first wave in May 2020 a study from the Covida Project found an unprecedented quadrupling of the number of NHS staff with high levels of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared to before COVID-19. Having the most severe levels of these symptoms was statistically linked to four key factors - insufficient access to or pressure to reuse Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), insufficient workplace preparation, insufficient training and communications, and a higher workload,” says Dr Gilleen.

This highlights that staff aren’t just anxious, depressed and traumatised from being over-worked, they also feel unsafe and at risk.

“With UK COVID-19 restrictions now fully removed in England, NHS staff face the daunting triple-threat of rising COVID-19 hospitalisations, huge backlogs of medical operations to clear, and the added expectation of large increases in winter flu, which is already being seen even now in summer. 

“These difficulties are present at a time when the NHS is already under-resourced, impacted by sickness and/or staff being ‘pinged’ to self-isolate through the government’s track and trace app, and staff continuing to fear the daily risk of infecting family and friends. Together these are considerable psychological burdens and create a perfect storm for the mental health and wellbeing of NHS staff.

“As COVID-19 cases continue to skyrocket, there may be worse to come, especially with the potential impact of additional waves, or new, more transmissible, vaccine-resistant variants. Previous research after other pandemics such as SARS has shown that residual mental health symptoms such as PTSD can continue for years, so the impact of repeated waves over the long-term will be potentially catastrophic for the mental health of NHS staff.

“The message from research such as the Covida Project is clear. To protect the mental health of NHS staff they must feel they are less at risk or in danger, have access to the required level of PPE, not be continuously over-worked, with better staffing, more opportunities for rest and space to share their stress. Despite this and similar findings from other studies, still not enough is being done to protect NHS staff mental health and wellbeing and we fear it will continue to suffer in the months to come. With this comes the real risk that large numbers of staff will burn out or even quit the NHS.”

The Covida project study was conducted by Dr James Gilleen (Senior Lecturer, University of Roehampton, study lead), Pauline Milne MBE Independent Healthcare Consultant and Dr Lorena Valdearenas, Old Age Consultant Psychiatrist, East London NHS Foundation Trust.  

Click here to read the full research paper.

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