Burden of overcoming Covid challenges for health and social care ‘will mostly fall on women’

The burden of overcoming “gargantuan” challenges facing health and care services will mostly fall on the shoulders of women, health leaders have warned.

The impact of the pandemic on the female workforce has “demonstrably worsened” since the summer, according to the NHS Confederation’s Health and Care Women Leaders Network (HCWLN).

Its latest survey highlighted some positive experiences for female staff in England, such as increased opportunities for flexible working and improved teamwork, but also found that caring responsibilities outside work have grown.

The HCWLN said there are “still many mountains to climb” as services deal with the repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic.

It continued: “This includes tackling the growing issue of long Covid, meeting increased demand for mental health services, continuing to deliver the largest vaccination programme the UK has ever seen, and addressing a backlog of treatment that could extend to nearly seven million people by the end of 2021.

“As 78 per cent of the health and care workforce is female, the burden of overcoming these gargantuan challenges will mostly fall on the shoulders of women.”

But the group warned that the “pressure and expectation of self-sacrifice created by the pandemic has gone on for too long and cannot continue at the same level”.

Some 903 health and care staff mainly from the NHS completed its latest survey, which found a “marked deterioration” in physical and emotional wellbeing.

Participants included nurses, doctors, managers, admin staff, and allied health professionals.

It found more than 80% of female respondents said their job had a greater negative impact than usual on their emotional wellbeing as a result of the pandemic, with 65% saying the same for their physical health.

Both are rises from when the survey was previously carried out over summer 2020.

This lends weight to concerns that the sector could see an exodus of staff due to the pressure they experience, the HCLWN said.

Samantha Allen (pictured), HCWLN chairwoman, said: “We need to see tailored support specifically for the needs of female staff and this should include recruitment, retention, flexible working and career progression.

“We are concerned that if these issues are not addressed, it could intensify the impact on our workforce at a time when the NHS can ill-afford to lose any more staff.

“We are worried the impact of Covid-19 could set the NHS back further when we want to create the conditions where our workforce is valued and all can progress in their careers, particularly those who work less than full time.”

Rebecca Smith, managing director of NHS Employers, added: “Much of the responsibility for caring outside work falls to women, and for NHS staff, this is alongside the additional pressures they have faced working through the most challenging year most of them will have ever experienced.

“We now need additional investment from Government, coupled with the existing and ongoing direct support by health and care organisations, to make sure the female workforce is properly looked after.”

An NHS spokesman said: “While caring for 400,000 Covid-19 patients during the pandemic has inevitably impacted our hard-working staff, huge efforts have been made to ensure they are well supported and cared for including through a mental health and wellbeing hotline and 24/7 text support, direct support at work through mental health and wellbeing hubs, and all NHS colleagues are entitled to flexible working so that where possible, they can work shifts that suit their busy lives.”

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