The pandemic has affected us all to a greater or lesser degree; it has impacted our families, our homes, and our jobs. Consequently, it has had a devastating impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing, especially the health and social care workforce, including the mental health sector, who have been at the forefront of the response. Staff working in “frontline” roles are particularly affected by the trauma of dealing with the virus as well as the everyday risks they have faced in delivering services and providing support.
We know that those working in “frontline” roles have been placed under extreme pressure, sometimes being forced to isolate from friends and family to care for and support their patients and people who use their services. Early in the pandemic, many of The Association’s members of VCSE mental health service providers reported that their staff had been redeployed to the NHS to respond to the pandemic, placing extra pressure on staff and services, which were already facing increased demand. Changes to the work environment have caused increased stress for the workforce with services having had to adapt their delivery model and offer support remotely/digitally – an approach that was not always accessible or inclusive for all needing support.
Many staff and volunteers have stepped up for months on end to meet people’s needs over the last year, with burnout being a major threat to the wellbeing of workers who have done everything they can during the crisis to help others, often at risk to themselves. We have heard from our members who have said that working in mental health, they see themselves as the problem-solvers and as such, rarely take the time to consider their own mental health and wellbeing.
People, particularly those from racialised communities, working in health and care and support services, including mental health, have been at greater risk from the virus because of their occupations. Tragically, many have lost their lives to it and many more will have been unwell and recovered, in some instances with lasting psychological and emotional effects. Growing numbers have also experienced bereavement during this time, amongst their families, friends, and work colleagues further impacting their mental health and wellbeing, including increasing their risk of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Whilst there has, rightly, been a focus on the effects and psychological and emotional needs of staff working in the NHS, there needs to be further attention towards the people working in the social care and VCSE sectors. Voluntary and community organisations and their workforce have shown what it means to step up during Covid-19 and it is crucial we recognise the importance of their mental health and wellbeing.
In April 2020, very early in the pandemic, we saw the NHS launch a mental health hotline, as part of a package of measures, for staff tackling Covid-19. The swift action to respond to the need of NHS was a positive step, however, a similar initiative for those working the VCSE and social care sectors was lacking until the launch of Our Frontline – a single service to support all key workers with their mental health – much later by a partnership of third sector organisations and the Royal Foundation.
In the absence of national support service for the whole health and social care workforce, many service providers implemented their own internal programmes to support their staff. Our members have reported introducing Employee Assistance Programmes to support mental health and wellbeing as well as implementing mechanisms for their staff to access external counselling. Lockdowns and restrictions have meant that any wellbeing activities have also been held online and providers have been creative in offering support to their staff – virtual yoga sessions, quiz nights, Netflix watch parties, circles of reflection, and even importing learning from abroad to have a fika – a concept, a state of mind, where you make time to catch up with friends and colleagues and have a coffee and cake; emphasising the significance of connecting with those around you (albeit virtually) and of peer support.
Many organisations have recruited staff in the last year and as such, some teams have never met face to face. As restrictions ease, providers have started planning short residential trips to allow colleagues to meet in person, bond face-to-face, and, most importantly, socialise. The importance of socialising between colleagues has been highlighted as being crucial to not just build relationships, improve mental health and wellbeing, but also to increase productivity at work.
As a membership organisation, we have supported VCSE mental health service providers by creating a repository of resources to improve staff mental health and wellbeing, signposted to support available, and offered wellbeing sessions for organisations.
A key initiative introduced by us at The Association to respond to the lockdown was to host bi-weekly virtual meetings for providers – a space for peer support – wider than one organisation and across the VCSE mental health sector. Having a platform for colleagues across the sector to share with each other has been crucial not just for their mental wellbeing, but also for ours. Over the last year, providers have shared their journeys of responding to the pandemic and now, look towards emerging from this crisis, together.
At The Association, being flexible has been key – whether it is with working hours or strict deadlines, we have taken an organic approach to working through the last year. As we look ahead, our two take-aways from the last year will be the need for flexibility and recognise that sometimes it’s ok not to be ok.