Occupational mental health issues didn’t start with Covid-19 – but they have been exacerbated

Category: Blogs, ADR Northern Ireland, Health & Wellbeing, World of Work

Written by Elizabeth Nelson 31 March 2021

The symposium sought to explore the challenging and topical issue of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the mental health of workers and carers. Whilst the mental health of both carers and workers existed as an important topic of policy-relevant research before the pandemic, the scale and gravity of the past year warrants further examination.

Presentations from Dr Finola Ferry and Dr Emma Curran, both of ADRC NI, set the scene for what administrative data can add to the research landscape around work, caring and mental health. Joe McCusker, from the healthcare union UNISON, discussed the issues their own research has found most prevalent among members during the pandemic, and how the union is supporting members who are struggling with their mental health.

We also heard from practitioners conducting research on mental health and appropriate interventions among health and social care staff. Dr Ciaran Shannon, of both the Northern Health and Social Care Trust and the Impact Research Centre, discussed the first of three waves of a staff survey on mental health and coping during the pandemic. His team’s findings exposed the areas where staff felt most vulnerable, and what they needed to feel supported to cope and carry out vital work.

Dr Sinead Hannan, a clinical psychologist from the Southern Health and Social Care Trust, took us through the evaluation of a staff mental health intervention model she and colleague Dr Elaine McCahey developed. Their findings showed how vital support for staff is, and how it had helped many health and social care staff respond differently to the incredible amounts of stress they found themselves under.

Both Dr Shannon and Dr Hannan relayed recommendations for how staff could be better supported, which included better communication, further financial support and busting stigmas around mental health; and Dr Finola Ferry spoke to us about the impact of reduced working hours on mental health, an issue particularly prevalent with the high uptake of the government’s furlough scheme.

The event closed with Ann Marie O’Neill, a working mother and carer involved with CarersNI. She began with an overview of some of the research CarersNI had conducted concerning the experiences and needs of carers, and how these had changed and expanded due to Covid. 600 people a day are becoming carers, and with 38% of carers feeling uncomfortable talking about it at work and 23% saying they don’t get enough support for their caring at work, it’s clear that this is a large-scale societal problem. Ann Marie also shared her personal experiences of being a working carer, discussing how her role as both a mother and a carer shaped her professional experience, and how employers’ attitudes towards carers can have a huge impact on their lives.

Supporting one another

It was noted by Dr Ciaran Shannon that, alongside supporting mental ill health issues post-Covid, we also need to celebrate the resilience of our communities, and how we have come together in many important ways – as individuals, as neighbourhoods, as employers – to support each other. Dr Sinead Hannan agreed, emphasising that the social determinants of health – and health inequalities – were present before Covid and have been exacerbated rather than created by the pandemic.

An audience member asked, “Whose responsibility is work/life balance; employer or employee?” We need to work in systems that are kind to us, replied Dr Shannon. Where a system does that, we do well; if it's left to us, it's an unfair individualisation of social problems; our responsibility is self-compassion. Joe McCusker from UNISON agreed, but also emphasised that the employer has the means to be flexible around particular circumstances, whereas individuals don't have that same degree of control. Thus, there is an onus on employers to put in place measures that will practically support employee wellbeing, with special regard to extenuating circumstances like caring or family responsibilities, as well as mental health.

So, what can employers do to support and improve employee mental health? Each of our panellists had a slightly different but complementary view to offer, from a preference for dedicated policies that embrace mental health wellness and support workers, to the importance of communication as a predictor of distress in the health service. Compassionate leadership, early intervention research to inform policy around work and mental health, and managers and leaders listening and caring when people say how they are, were also cited as important factors in supporting and improving employee mental health. Compassion makes all the difference in the world.

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