When you’re in the eye of a storm, your focus is on immediate survival.
Aware that your situation is perilous, you take the actions necessary to get through it. Only afterwards do you reflect on your experience and the stress involved, which can leave you shaken, traumatized – or worse. What if you faced that every day, over an extended period, with the level of stress repeatedly peaking?
NHS staff have been on the frontline of the biggest healthcare storm our country has faced in years. Repeated, prolonged, stress. Dealing with vastly increased workloads, having to constantly make decisions and judgements critical to a patient’s survival, yet still having to face up to the horror of lives lost on an unprecedented scale.
Even for staff trained for, and used to, the huge responsibility of keeping people alive, the additional pressure bought on by covid-19 has taken its toll, with the NHS facing problems with staff on long-term sick leave due to anxiety and stress, student nurses deciding against continuing their careers, and frontline teams facing burnout.
The pandemic might be showing signs of easing, but for many of the people we have come to rely upon for our survival the damage to their wellbeing will be long-term.
The Guardian recently published a very powerful and concerning piece on the intense pressure faced by NHS staff following the first wave of coronavirus, and the toll on their mental health.
If the line "About 45% reported symptoms consistent with a probable diagnosis of PTSD, severe depression and anxiety." doesn't shock you, then there are plenty of other observations in this article that we should all be very concerned about. Keep in mind that this report is talking about the period covering the first wave. The recent peak saw 50% more patients in UK hospitals than in April 2020. It’s hard to imagine how much worse these figures for staff wellbeing may well be now.
A BBC report by Christopher Bobyn, talking to intensive care unit staff at University Hospital Hairmyres in East Kilbride, gives a revealing insight into the day-to-day realities wearing down staff resilience.
Quotes like "We're all fatigued emotionally and physically, but we look out for each other… I do wonder if when things calm down if it will hit the staff harder, when we have time to reflect on the loss we've seen." and “Part of the fatigue we feel is that we're not getting to our normal workload, but those problems haven't gone away." Show the potentially ongoing damage that needs addressing.
Supporting wellbeing and helping staff to develop resilience will be vital to their recovery, and to ensure we don't lose skilled personnel - just when we need them the most.