By Nick Taylor, CEO, Unmind (www.unmind.com)
Carers have fought on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve risked burnout and poor mental health in the struggle to fulfill their duties as care workers while looking after themselves and their families. Occupational stress, anxiety and depression have risen dramatically over this past year: one study found that three quarters of carers reported feeling exhausted by the end of 2020.
The World Health Organisation defines burnout as: “A syndrome […] resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Burnout doesn’t happen overnight: it’s a steady drip of negative experiences and stressors that erode us bit by bit.
To get to the root of the burnout problem, carers – and their employers – need to focus on building the right resilience and coping mechanisms. Because we all have mental health, just like we all have physical health – and both need to be nurtured. Care employers need to offer proactive and preventative mental health support for every employee – not just those who are already experiencing problems.
PREVENTING PTSD POST-PANDEMIC
In the wake of the pandemic, PTSD is likely to impact some of those who were at the sharp end of the crisis. Carers need to monitor how they cope in the coming months to avoid long term and potentially debilitating consequences. Creating a proactive strategy to tackle PTSD takes understanding where it comes from: a bug in the process that enables us to create and store memories. Normally, memories are stored neatly away in our mind, with a time-stamp. But when we’re exposed to a life-threatening or intensely fearful situation, our brain goes into an automatic, defensive fight-or-flight mode that suspends normal sensory processing. As a result, the memory is fragmented into parts, without a clear beginning or end, and it doesn’t get filed away with our other neutral memories.
This lack of coherent processing has consequences down the line, including random triggers and a strong sense of ongoing threat. There are numerous symptoms of PTSD, including feelings of anger or shame, low mood, and sleep disturbance. Those at risk should be aware of these signs. Employers can provide care workers tools to regularly check in and assess their own mental wellness while building awareness, education, and open dialogue around the issue.
PRIORITISING WELLBEING FOR CARE STAFF
Managing stress during a pandemic will always be a challenge. But we can now create forward-looking strategies for recovery. To prioritise the mental health of care staff now and beyond the crisis, employers will need to focus on a strategy that addresses the mental, physical and interpersonal aspects of wellbeing. Two factors will be crucial in build- ing this strategy:
A whole-person approach: carers should be encouraged to regularly assess their mental wellbeing and discuss it with their managers so that any issues can be spotted early on and managed. All three elements of our wellbeing need to be nourished and looked after: the psychological, social and physical.
Engaging every employee: we all have mental health, all the time. So the right mental health programme will need to be inclusive and engage everyone in the workforce. Our tools, resources and support should focus on prevention – tackling the whole spectrum of our mental health needs.
While Covid-19 restrictions are lifting and the vaccination programme roll-out continues, carers will begin to process what they have been through over the last year. To support their staff through the next stage of this journey, employers in the field should act now to put in place long-term mental health strategies that focus on preventative – rather than just reactive –support. After all, how can carers do their job adequately, if they can’t care for themselves?