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NHS leaders demand extra support for female staff to minimise risk of Covid-19 burnout

by Awil Mohamoud
28 August 2020

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The NHS risks losing female staff if it does not act now to ‘fully support’ workers dealing with stress and exhaustion due to the Covid-19 crisis, an NHS Confederation report has warned.   

In a survey of 1,300 female health and social care workers, three quarters (72%) said working during Covid has had a more damaging effect than usual on their emotional wellbeing, and half (52%) reported a negative impact on their physical health.

The analysis, which looked into the long-term impact of the pandemic on the NHS workforce, concluded that staff must be provided with the ‘right support’ to help them recover from the ‘trauma of working during the crisis’. It added that this will be especially important as normal services are resumed. 

Work pressures

The survey, carried out in June, also found workers were struggling to balance working hours and non-work caring responsibilities. 

Respondents reported taking on an average of 11.22 additional hours of non-work-related care responsibilities each week following the start of the pandemic, but only reduced their working hours by 1.44 hours per week to accommodate this. 

Unpaid working hours had also increased by an average of 7.14 hours each week due to the Covid-19 crisis, the survey found.

One unnamed respondent said: ‘There are not enough hours to do my job in the time I’m given, which means I’ve had to do a lot more in my own time and unpaid, which has had a negative impact on my family.’

Significant workforce shortages may also have exacerbated the impact the pandemic had on staff, the report said. 

Managerial support

The survey found managerial support had been ‘strong’ during the pandemic, especially for those who had either requested to work flexibly or reduce their hours.

Just over half of respondents (59%) said they felt safe sharing personal concerns or needs with their managers, but a quarter (26%) said they did not. 

Respondents also reported poor behaviour among some leaders, which had been amplified by the pandemic, ‘including claims of bullying, sexism and racism, and even claims of threats’.

Safety concerns 

Workers in leadership roles reported being worried for their employees and their families, ‘and that they may be sending their teams into situations they are not equipped to cope with’, the report found.

Staff from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds also ‘reported feeling traumatised by the disproportionate impact of the virus, compounded by concerns over risk assessments not being performed in a timely manner, if at all’.

Working from home

The survey identified a ‘significant shift’ towards home working, but some female staff reported issues managing childcare while also ‘trying to continue working as normal’, while others had experienced issues around creating a suitable workspace. 

Overall, most respondents reported a positive experience of home working, with one saying they saved up to 15 hours a week on commuting. But 3% of respondents said it was unsafe for them to work at home, due to issues such as domestic violence. 

The report said: ‘If home working is to continue it needs to be appropriate, risk assessed and adequately resourced with the necessary equipment and safety assessments.’ 

‘Women must have access to right support’

Samantha Allen, chair of the NHS Confederation’s Health & Care Women Leaders Network said: ‘The results of this survey hammer home the wide-ranging toll that the pandemic has had on the health and wellbeing of female health and care workers so far and how the level of pressure and expectation of self-sacrifice is not sustainable, especially as patient services across the NHS continue to resume ahead of winter.’

She added: ‘Women make up more than three-quarters of the NHS workforce, so we cannot afford to let these issues be ignored. Now more than ever, women across health and care must have access to the right support so that we can minimise the risk of burnout, protect their wellbeing, and make sure they are mentally and physically healthy enough to continue to care for and support our communities.’

In response to the report, the Health & Care Women Leaders Network has produced ten recommendations for action:

  1. Requests to work flexible/reduced hours should always be accommodated unless there are exceptional reasons why this is not possible.
  2. Managers should pay particular attention to the physical and emotional health needs of female staff with children during the pandemic.
  3. Staff should be discouraged from working unpaid overtime and to maintain good work-life boundaries (particularly when working from home and for staff with children).
  4. Organisations should prioritise the appointment of a wellbeing champion, and the national wellbeing offers should be extended to all across health and care – and continue beyond this immediate crisis.
  5. NHS England and NHS Improvement should ensure the continuation of all wellbeing support and psychological support that will be needed by those on the frontline.
  6. Staff safety is a priority – PPE must always be available in all sizes and appropriate training in using PPE must be given. If PPE is not available, workers need to know how to speak up and be encouraged to do so.
  7. Managers should support workers to speak up about personal concerns in relation to the pandemic, being mindful that BME staff and staff with adult dependants may find it particularly difficult to share their concerns, signposting to alternative speaking up channels.
  8. Managers should create a culture where workers feel able to speak up about their personal safety at home and, where concerns are shared, staff should be proactively helped to seek support.
  9. Organisations should review their home working policies and ensure staff have access to the appropriate equipment and safety assessments are undertaken.
  10. Domestic violence information and support services should be made available to all staff working across health and care.