nhs worker wearing a mask

The number of NHS staff reporting significant mental health issues quadrupled during the first wave of Covid-19, according to what is understood to be the largest study into the mental health impact of the pandemic on health workers in the UK.

Shortly after the first Covid-19 peak last year, 21% of healthcare workers (HCWs) reported high levels of depression, compared with 5% pre-pandemic.

Those experiencing significant feelings of anxiety rose from 8% to 36%, while those reporting severe stress jumped from 11% to 46%.

Some 2,773 healthcare workers across 52 NHS trusts took part in the University of Roehampton study. The survey ran in April and May 2020 and respondents were representative of those that worked in the healthcare sector – 85% were women and 13% were from an ethnic minority background.

Frontline HCWs appeared to bear the brunt of the mental health impact of the pandemic. A greater number of frontline workers compared to non-frontline workers reported symptoms of significant depression (31% vs 25%), anxiety (39% vs 27%), and stress (21% vs 15%) and were more than twice as likely to have severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.

Dr James Gilleen, senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Roehampton, said: “This research is critical in providing the clearest picture yet on the traumatic psychological effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the UK’s healthcare workers.

“While we’re not entirely shocked to discover that all mental health indicators deteriorated among HCWs, the extremely sharp increase in those that experienced severe symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression and PTSD is unprecedented and a serious cause for concern for NHS staff wellbeing.

“Our results clearly show that mental health disorders are on a staggering rise and urgent action is needed to provide our healthcare workforce with the support, resources and management they need.”

The study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry Open, also found that:

  • Women were more likely than their male counterparts to suffer from high anxiety (35% vs 24%), depression (29% vs 22%) and stress (20% vs 11%).
  • HCWs from ethnic minority backgrounds were 50% more likely to experience PTSD symptoms. They were significantly more worried about lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), getting ill or dying from Covid-19 and about contracting the virus at work.
  • 37%  of staff who were single reported to be suffering from high-level depression symptoms, compared to only 26% of those who were married or in a relationship.
  • Those who experienced a personal loss due to Covid-19 had a 70% increased risk of high anxiety and depression and 150% increased risk of high PTSD.
  • Those who performed resuscitation saw a 70% greater risk of having high anxiety and 125% risk of high PTSD symptoms.
  • Managers were over five times more likely to report high PTSD than those in more junior positions.
  • Staff working in London showed lower rates of anxiety and depression, possibly because their departments may have been better resourced, had better access to PPE, and were more accustomed to stress from city living.

Gilleen said:

“When compiling this research, we also wanted to go a step further and identify the critical reasons behind the impact of Covid-19 on the mental health of HCWs.

“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.”

The original version of this article was originally published on Personnel Today by Ashleigh Webber.

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