Greater support needed to help female staff deal with impact of COVID-19

Sam Allen

The NHS risks losing the people who make up the largest proportion of its workforce to stress and exhaustion as a result of the COVID-19 crisis if its female staff are not fully supported in their roles, the results of a new survey show.
 
The survey, carried out by the NHS Confederation’s Health and Care Women Leaders Network, received responses from more than 1,300 women working across health and care in England, and paints a stark picture of the difficulties they have faced during the pandemic, especially in terms of their physical and mental wellbeing.
 
Almost three quarters of respondents (72 per cent) – including managers, nurses, admin staff, doctors, and allied health professionals – reported that their job had a greater negative impact than usual on their emotional wellbeing as a result of the pandemic, and more than half (52 per cent) had suffered a negative impact on their physical health.
 
The survey was carried out in June, two months after the national peak in hospital admissions for coronavirus had passed, and shows the longer lasting impact the disease has had on the female health and care workforce, including challenges around managing work/life demands.
 
For example, since the start of lockdown, respondents reported that they took on an average of 11.22 additional hours each week of non-work caring responsibilities, but only reduced their working hours to take account of these responsibilities by 1.44 hours each week.
 
One respondent said: “I am exhausted. I can’t buy food on my day off as I want to hide under the covers and sleep. I can’t face being jolly and excited for [my] children, who are scared Mummy is going to die of COVID.”
 
Another said: “Managing a full-time job with conflicting priorities, home schooling, supporting family in the UK and [abroad] takes a toll. It’s financially difficult and emotionally draining.”
 
This is despite the positive experiences reported by many who responded to the survey, including around the strong managerial support they received, as well as how the pandemic brought teams closer together, and reduced administrative tasks.
 
The network is concerned that if these issues are not addressed, it could intensify burnout across the sector at a time when the NHS is expected to resume the majority of its patient services, such as non-urgent procedures that had to be paused at the start of the pandemic, while preparing for what is expected to be a demanding winter.
 
Also, the network is concerned that the impact of COVID-19 could set the NHS back further in creating an environment where women can progress to more senior roles. This will be explored further in a forthcoming report from the network in the autumn.
 
The survey follows the recent publication of the NHS People Plan, the workforce strategy for the NHS in England, which sets ambitions to improve the wellbeing of health and care staff and introduce greater flexible-working arrangements for them, as part of a drive to increase recruitment and staff retention efforts.
 
Samantha Allen, chair of the NHS Confederation’s Health and Care Women Leaders Network and chief executive of Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, 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.
 
“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.”
 
Elsewhere in the survey, health and care staff from BME backgrounds 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. This impact has cast into sharp relief the urgent need for action at a national and local level to address the inequalities, in health and otherwise faced by BME and women health and care staff at work.
 
Writing in the report, Dr Henrietta Hughes, National Guardian for the NHS, said: “The responses that show the barriers that continue to be faced by Black, and Minority Ethnic colleagues to speak up are particularly shocking. It shows the critical role which managers play in fostering a culture where we feel safe to share these concerns or be signposted to alternative speaking up channels and to keep our NHS People Promise that ‘we each have a voice that counts’.”
 
In response, the 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.

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