Clapping after Coronavirus: The implications of the Coronavirus pandemic for health and social care workers

The Coronavirus pandemic has turned the world’s attention to the work of our carers. Each week, many of us have been clapping to recognise and show our appreciation for the difficult jobs that those in health and social care, as well as other key workers, are doing. The pandemic highlights, more than ever, the challenges faced by health and social care workers and the need to value and support these important roles. The Welsh Government’s joint health and social care workforce strategy sets out ambitions to “put wellbeing at the heart of our plans for the workforce”.

There are immediate concerns for ensuring the wellbeing of health and care staff dealing with the increased workload and emotional strain of responding to the Coronavirus pandemic. A recent survey asked hospital doctors in the UK whether they were suffering from a range of mental health conditions relating to their work. Almost a third of respondents said that they were, and that the pandemic had made their condition worse. A further 12% said that they were suffering but not worse than before this pandemic. In a similar survey of the nursing and midwifery workforce a third of respondents reported severe mental health issues.

A number of factors have been found to decrease psychological impact on healthcare workers during a virus outbreak and recommendations include a series of individual factors, such as support from family and peers, and a series of service factors such as clear direction and communication, adequate training and equipment, ensuring sufficient breaks and access to tailored individual psychological interventions.

In many cases, carers aren’t those employed to look after us but friends, families, neighbours and volunteers. Carers Wales estimate there are 370,230 unpaid carers in Wales, providing care worth £8.1 billion per year. Unpaid carers were experiencing worrying levels of  stress and anxiety before the pandemic. Many support services are closed or reduced as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, and a recent survey found 79% of unpaid carers in Wales are providing more care. Over half reported feeling overwhelmed and worried that they are going to burnout. This has led to calls for carer’s allowance to be increased and has highlighted the need for support for unpaid carers.

Recognising the need to support wellbeing of health and social care staff in the immediate crisis has led to many gestures of gratitude ranging from free parking, delivery of meals to hospital wards, fundraising efforts, and a £500 bonus for social care staff in Wales. UNISON Cymru is offering courses on PTSD, stress resilience and mindfulness for social care workers and a mental health support scheme for doctors has been extended to all healthcare workers in Wales. But burnout in health and care staff was a growing concern before the Coronavirus pandemic.

Wellbeing of those who take care of us is important for so many reasons. We know that staff wellbeing impacts on sickness absence rates, patient experience and quality of care. Ensuring the wellbeing and psychological resilience of staff in ‘normal’ times will mean we’re better placed to respond to future emergencies. Interventions such as Schwartz rounds, which provide a space to reflect on the emotional realities of caring roles, have been shown to provide improved psychological wellbeing for regular attenders, as well as increased empathy and compassion. Strategies to support wellbeing and prevent burnout include: peer support groups; balanced work patterns support for personal self-care; and supportive teams. An organisation’s values, culture, and compassionate leadership are also hugely important, and are central to the Health and Social Care Wales Leadership Principles.

Health and care services were facing funding and demand pressures before the pandemic, and many organisations have been dealing with challenges of vacant posts, workforce shortages and issues with recruitment and retention of staff. Brexit, and indeed the Coronavirus pandemic, have the potential to exacerbate workforce shortages. Many of the difficult roles undertaken by our carers are poorly paid, have poor job stability and poor career progression, particularly in social care. The NHS and social care are some of the biggest employers in Wales and the cost of investing in better pay and conditions for care workers will have benefits in terms of reduced staff absenteeism, as well as aid with recruitment and retention. The pandemic further highlights the need to recognise and value these difficult roles, with adequate renumeration and career progression.

Responding to the immediate demands of the Coronavirus pandemic has meant elective procedures have been postponed. Attendances at emergency departments and GP surgeries in Wales have dropped significantly and could rebound once the immediate crisis is over. The demands of following infection control measures, tackling the backlog of postponed procedures, understanding and addressing unmet need and planning for potential further outbreaks, mean pressure on services and workers aren’t going away.

The displays of gratitude for the work of our carers through the pandemic have been heart-warming, and it will be important to value, recognise and support those working in health and social care during and after the recovery.


Read our next blog in this series: Recovering from the Coronavirus pandemic: maintaining a legacy of volunteering