By Steve Carter, Director of Consulting Services, FirstCare (www.firstcare.uk)
Whisper it: in the UK, the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic may be behind us. But for those in healthcare, the challenge is far from over.
In the months since the start of the third wave, staff burnout and mental health issues have jumped alarmingly. Our data shows that from February to June 2021, there has been a 37% increase in mental health- related absences in the sector. And this isn’t just a result of the immediate pressures of a high Covid case-rate. Even if we compare recent months – when Covid cases were flat or falling – with the same time last year, in May we find a 55% year-on-year increase in mental health-related absences. In June, the increase was 42%.
Clearly, for those who bore the brunt of frontline work during the height of the pandemic, Covid has left a legacy of poor mental health, compassion fatigue, and physical exhaustion.
A COMPLICATED PICTURE
And it doesn’t end there. Of those healthcare workers who’ve tested positive for Covid, between one in four and one in twenty will go on to develop ‘Long Covid’, suffering symptoms for weeks or even months on end – an experience that itself often contributes to a decline in mental health. Overall, our data shows that amongst people who take time off for Covid-related reasons, around one in seven will go on to suffer sub- sequent mental health troubles.
For employers in the sector, this ‘second pandemic’ of burnout and mental illness presents a raft of challenges, particularly when combined with a potential Long Covid time-bomb. First and foremost there’s the imperative to help affected staff, and alongside that the need to address the concurrent impact of staff absence on service provision and costs.
To use the NHS as an example, although mental health issues account for just 5% of NHS absences during 2021 to date, they represent 17% of the related costs and lost working time, adding to the difficulties caused by high levels of mental health-related absence.
WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP?
The potential combined impact of mental health troubles and Long Covid may begin to seem insurmountable – but we firmly believe that there are concrete, effective actions employers can take to improve staff wellbeing and increase their organisations’ resilience. Put another way, you and your staff are not at the mercy of Covid’s after-effects.
Early intervention is crucial to tackle rising mental health issues. Employers need to be able to understand when staff are off, why they are off, and when they are likely to return – with that information, they’ll be well positioned to take action during the crucial early phase when engagement, support, and signposting are proven to speed up recovery and minimise the chance of problems getting worse.
When it comes to Long Covid, you can lay the groundwork for an effective early response by helping your HR team and line managers understand the symptoms they need to look out for. And given Long Covid cases aren’t likely to decline in the near future, it’s a good idea to incorporate it into your absence policy to make sure affected employees are treated fairly. For example, if you can, you might offer a phased return to work or a period of flexible hours.
Above all, develop a culture of talking with employees – it bears repeating that early intervention can help prevent more serious problems getting a foothold!
HEALTHY STAFF, HEALTHY ORGANISATION
It’s not just staff who benefit from an intelligent early-intervention strategy. Healthcare organisations that have clear, real-time visibility into staff absence and wellbeing will be able to make better decisions, allocating people to shifts more effectively and reducing agency costs.
With real-time insights, you can monitor, pre-empt, and react to the evolving impact of poor mental health and Long Covid – giving teams the resources they need to provide better care and service, avoiding burnout, and ensuring productivity is not negatively impacted.
Healthcare workers have dealt with a huge amount during the last 18 months. But the picture can improve. The incredible work they’ve done doesn’t have to come at the cost of their mental health. As employers, with the right information, you can give them the support they need – and help your organisation keep providing the essential care your patients need.