Report calls for greater support for women working in healthcare amid pandemic-related stress

More support has been urged for women working in healthcare after a survey found almost three-quarters of staff suffered a greater negative impact than usual on their emotional wellbeing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

More than half (52%) of people ranging from managers and doctors to admin staff and allied health professionals said they had suffered a negative impact on their physical health, according to a report by the NHS Confederation’s Health and Care Women Leaders Network.

The report warns that the health service “can ill-afford to risk losing the people that make up the largest proportion of its workforce to stress and exhaustion”.

Unpaid working increased by an average of 7.14 hours extra each week and respondents took on an average of 11 additional hours each week of non-work caring responsibilities, but only cut their working hours by 1.44 hours to account for that, therefore struggling to maintain a work-life balance, the report said.

While personal protective equipment (PPE) was generally available and adequate, a fifth (21%) reported not having access to the PPE they needed.

The survey was carried out between June 4 and 25 and the report said this suggests “there is still work to be done to make sure every member of staff across health and care has access to the right training and equipment to keep them safe from infection”.

Acknowledging that the overwhelming majority of respondents to the survey were white, the report said there were some key differences in the findings in relation to participants from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.

When it came to working from home, proportionally more BAME staff reported not feeling safe at home and BAME respondents felt less safe sharing their personal concerns with managers than white respondents.

Staff from BAME backgrounds also said they felt traumatised by the disproportionate impact of the virus, and said this was compounded by concerns over risk assessments not being done when they should be, if at all, the report said.

Dr Henrietta Hughes, national guardian for the NHS, said: “The Covid-19 crisis has shown how crucial it is for people to be able to speak up, and this survey highlights the concerns and challenges faced by people working in health during the pandemic.

“The responses that show the barriers which continue to be faced by black, Asian 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’.”

Overall positive outcomes from the survey included many participants reporting that they had been given good support by management and that the pandemic brought teams closer together.

But 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 issues raised must not be ignored, especially as staff face winter pressures in the coming months.

She 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.”

The network has put forward 10 recommendations, including making sure requests for flexible or reduced hours are accommodated unless there are exceptional circumstances, creating a culture where workers feel they can speak up about issues, ensuring PPE is always available and that particular attention is paid to the physical and emotional health needs of female staff with children during the pandemic.

The survey had 1,308 responses from women and 121 from men across health and care in England.

The pattern of findings from men was similar to findings from women, the organisation said.

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