Protecting the mental health of front line staff and key workers during COVID-19
It is important for organisations to understand how to support the psychological wellbeing of staff who are exposed to traumatic working conditions, especially where employees have little or no training in how to prepare or cope with the emotional impact of the current difficult working environment.
During COVID19 local authorities will need their staff to continue to function and carry out their very important roles and manage the increasing need for their services and information whilst dealing with their own personal situations and emotions.
Front line and key workers, especially those in social care roles, may be worried about their vulnerability to a higher risk of infection and worried about spreading the virus to their families, or they may be experiencing additional stress because of having to offer more support to bereaved and grieving residents.
Employees who are in roles that are exposed to new or additional trauma may therefore have a higher risk of mental health problems such as depression and anxiety and possibly Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which could result in long-term sickness absence, either now or when the crisis has passed.
Wellbeing research suggests that good organisational leadership and a supportive work culture can have a positive impact on the psychological wellbeing of these staff before, during and after the crisis. During this period of increased period of pressure and anxiety, it is essential that employers send a clear message that staff wellbeing matters.
Key steps recommended for employers
- Be proactive and make time to talk about how staff are feeling
Employers need to lead the way in raising awareness of the importance of good mental health for their staff. It is important to reduce the stigma of talking about mental health in your workplace, particularly in times of crisis. It is equally important for frontline workers to know that they don’t have to feel heroic. They can feel scared and sad and cry and feel anxious, but they can still laugh and feel hope and joy as well as grief. Acknowledging all our emotions is important to good mental health.
Employees often hide mental health problems because of worries that they are letting people down by ‘not coping’, or fear that colleagues or managers may think badly of them, either now or in the future. Empathetic communication to staff acknowledging their fears and anxieties together with messages about how to recognise the signs of distress will ensure it is not an issue that is overlooked during long and potentially stressful working days. Emphasise that every employee matters.
- Encourage open and honest conversations
Employees need to be encouraged to speak up when feeling overwhelmed or in need. Employers should create safe spaces for people to talk about their mental health challenges, past and present, and to be able to do this in their own time and without fear of feeling judged or excluded if they open-up in this way. Senior managers may be able to help here by sharing their own experiences or stories of other people who have struggled with managing their mental health during stressful times. Nick Page, the Chief Executive of Solihull, describes his challenges of managing his mental health during a stressful time.
- Put support in place for staff and managers and make it widely available
Staff should know where they can go and who they can talk to about difficulties they are having. This might be their line manager, an organisation’s occupational health service or employee assistance provider, or mental health champions/first aiders. Other options may be to share open online resources on coping with anxiety and stress with front line staff, such as Headspace's meditation sessions or set up dedicated confidential mental health support for front line workers. For staff members who are struggling to have good mental health it’s important to have different ways they can access support.
Many employees will be unaware of the support available to them, especially those staff who are not normally office-based. Employers may need to put additional communications in place to ensure information on wellbeing support is cascaded throughout the organisation. Managers are an important way that staff will learn about these resources so ensure that managers understand what’s available and their role in helping staff to access it. This can be a difficult topic to discuss so it may help to have additional tools to help managers to feel more comfortable raising this with members of their team.
Crucially, there should be no threshold or qualifying conditions to access the support such as being on sick leave or requiring a recommendation from occupational health. Also, support should stay in place for as long as it is needed, even if this is after the coronavirus crisis has ended.
- Support relationships between colleagues and teams
Working in and feeling part of a team is important to most people in their jobs and is the main way most of us get work done. This sense of belonging is important to staff morale and wellbeing at work. It is therefore important to create opportunities and ways for front line workers to reach out to colleagues, managers and peers for social support. Hearing from others who may be having similar experiences may help staff to feel less isolated.
Some ways to support this:
• run virtual peer 'support sessions' to ensure staff have a place to discuss their personal and professional concerns in a sympathetic way
• set up a buddy system - partner less experienced front line staff with more experienced team members to get advice and voice concerns.
• encourage staff to share good news stories about their personal or working lives
• encourage staff to sustain their peer connections and maintain contact with colleagues whether they are at work or away from work because of illness or exclusion following the self-isolation requirements.
- Take stock/check the effect of these measures regularly
It is important to check how staff are doing and whether your organisation’s wellbeing offers are appropriate and helpful to their needs and working conditions. Data is key:
- ask managers to speak regularly to their teams and feedback concerns and requests centrally
- ask for reports from providers of mental health support
- encourage staff to tell you directly what they need.
Wellbeing support plans must be dynamic and able to adapt to changing conditions and needs.
- British Association of Social Workers – ethical guidance for social workers considering some of the specific choices and decisions that practitioners are having to make in this emergency situation, including rationing of support and resources and more stringent prioritisation
- British Safety Council – a free online course that highlights some of the pressures their teams might face, helps managers become more aware of their own actions and behaviours, and most importantly it helps manage and reduce stress levels within their team.
- British Safety Council – a free online course that provides line managers with the skills and confidence to listen to and talk with someone who feels that they need to share a problem regarding their mental health.
- Community Care – a guide on developing emotional resilience and well-being which has been updated in light of the Coronavirus
- Skills for Care – a guide for adult social care staff on how to build personal resilience with practical tasks to complete that help individuals to recognise pressure, develop coping strategies and gives advice on creating a network of support.
- A free online platform containing 8 easy-to-access, short practical exercises to help NHS and frontline staff alleviate and combat high anxiety, panic and fatigue while responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
- Able Futures – delivering the Department for Work and Pensions Access to work mental health support service for individuals, employers and apprenticeship providers.