For almost a year, UNISON members have been confronted with the harrowing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. And for those working to provide healthcare for the public, the relentless exposure to death, disease and uncertainty is causing widespread distress.
Almost half of health workers (48%) across the UK – including nurses, paramedics, hospital porters, healthcare assistants and A&E staff – say they are struggling to cope.
This figure comes from UNISON’s report Worry in mind, which is based on responses from more than 14,000 employees in hospitals, GP practices and other locations such as community clinics.
The report reveals that the pandemic is causing health staff to suffer panic attacks, sleepless nights and other problems, as the demands upon them show no sign of lessening.
I’m still recovering from COVID-19, but feel sick at the thought of going back
Three in five health workers (60%) felt their worsening mental health was due to a fear of getting sick with COVID-19. This was followed by being unable to see friends and family (55%) and increased workload (49%).
Other factors include increased contact with very sick patients (33%), financial worries (23%), difficulty taking annual leave (17%), issues with employers over sick pay (8%), and having to live away from home to protect their family (8%).
Staff also commented on the physical strain of constantly wearing protective safety kit, including thirst and fatigue, the burden of coping with the death of patients and fears of infecting loved ones.
Patricia, a healthcare assistant who had COVID-19 this winter, says: “I remember hearing one patient telling his brother over FaceTime he wouldn’t make it. I’m not an emotional person but I was crying at work after hearing that. It’s scarred me – I’ve been unable to sleep.
“I feel for the doctors having to decide which patients get a ventilator. I’m still recovering from COVID-19, but feel sick at the thought of going back. I’ve not had any support and would leave if I could. I wouldn’t wish what I’ve been through on my worst enemy.”
David, a student ambulance technician who has now left the service, says: “Ambulances were queuing outside hospitals because of COVID-related treatment backlogs. I’d be in the back of the vehicle with suspected COVID patients for hours, confined in a box with no ventilation and just a disposable mask for protection.
“At one point I did eight nightshifts in a row from 10pm to 10am. It was like suffering jet lag. I’ve had mental health issues and the pressures made me up my medication. But the private ambulance firm I worked for just ignored my situation.”
It was a nightmare – I felt guilty and helpless about not being able to do more
Michelle, a nurse, says: “On the COVID-19 ward, people were dying one after the other and alone. It was a nightmare – I felt guilty and helpless about not being able to do more. I couldn’t sleep and was very anxious. But no support was offered because everyone was so busy dealing with patients. The experience has made me leave hospital nursing. Now I work in the community.”
The strain on healthcare staff, with thousands of workers already burned out, is leading to fears of a widespread exodus if urgent support is not provided.
Commenting on the report’s findings, UNISON head of health Sara Gorton says: “The pressure on staff of keeping us safe during COVID-19 has been relentless.
“Many are exhausted, with no let-up in sight given the increase in hospital admissions and backlog of cancelled treatments. Others are traumatised from seeing patients die before their time – no one can comprehend the toll this has taken.
“Pay rates must rise soon or staff could leave. The government needs to step in to help the NHS hold on to people. That means supporting their mental health as well as their financial wellbeing.
“To help avoid an exodus, ministers should extend psychological support and guarantee a decent pay increase.”
The government may call them heroes, but what they’re being forced to endure… is more akin to the experience of being hostages
UNISON is calling on the government to expand the package of mental health support available for staff both now and long term. This includes extending free access to wellbeing apps, at least until the end of this year, telephone counselling that’s available around the clock, fast-track specialist treatment for those in crisis, and a significant pay rise to boost morale.
A pay rise is directly connected to wellbeing. Being under economic strain negatively affects the mental health of more than four in five (81%) staff who responded to the questionnaire.
Clinical psychologist Dr Sanah Ahsan says: “Suffering of the mind, body and spirit is a completely understandable response to a traumatising situation at any given time, let alone a life-altering pandemic.
“On a daily basis, health workers are being put into high-risk and high-responsibility situations where they’re made to feel powerless. The distress they’re now experiencing is an understandable survival response to repeated exposure to death, the risk of contaminating others and being isolated from their loved ones.
“The government may call them ‘heroes’, but what they’re being forced to endure, and their heightened physiological responses to this, is more akin to the experience of being hostages.”
Half of the survey respondents (51%) have sought mental health support, with the majority of these turning to friends and family (77%), and colleagues (58%). A significant number have used wellbeing apps (27%) or professional counselling services (20%).
As the never-ending pandemic continues, UNISON says free 24-hour helplines are urgently needed to support those experiencing burnout, especially as hospital admissions continue to soar.
Members’ names have been changed for this report.