Frontline NHS staff and other first responders working during the height of the pandemic appear to have experienced less distress than the general public, a new study has suggested.
The study, published in the British Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (16 August), surveyed more than 12,000 people in Wales – including 2,167 NHS staff in primary and secondary care – between June and July 2020.
It found that nearly half (46.7%) of NHS staff were deemed ‘psychologically well’ on the Kessler Distress Scale, while a third (33.6%) were found to be under ‘moderate’ or ‘severe’ mental disorder or distress.
By contrast, 43% of the general population ranked as ‘psychologically well’, while 37.9% ranked under ‘moderate’ or ‘severe’ distress.
Rates were similarly higher than the general population among ambulance, police, and fire and rescue staff.
Staff have ‘inherent resilience’
The lower rate of distress among healthcare staff and other frontline workers may be attributed to ‘inherent resilience’ as part of the profession, it suggested.
The authors clarified: ‘While it is unknown if these first responder groups were less affected by the Covid-19 pandemic than the general public, or if they had better mental wellbeing prior to the pandemic, these findings are positive regardless.’
Alternatively, they suggested it may be attributed to the ‘altruistic nature’ of a healthcare worker’s role.
‘Research finds that helping others and performing acts of kindness can boost subjective psychological wellbeing with small to medium effect sizes,’ the authors said.
‘As altruism is central in first responder and health care roles and is a regular part of the day job, it seems feasible that working in such occupations that involve a high degree of assisting others may have minimized psychological distress levels.’
The authors acknowledged that their findings contrast with other studies which suggest similar or lower levels of wellbeing in health workers, when compared with the general public.
A May survey revealed that over a third of GPs (36%) were considering early retirement within the next 12 months, with 45% citing their personal well-being as a major factor.
Similarly reports of workforce burnout across the NHS and social care led MPs to launch a dedicated inquiry into the well-being crisis.
Nicola Gray, psychology professor at Swansea University and lead author on the study, said that at the start of the pandemic, healthcare workers were more at risk through their contact with the public.
‘You would expect these people to be more worried and stressed than most,’ she said.
‘Our study gives an optimistic view of the ability to psychologically bounce-back in these critical occupations. It also shows that playing a crucial societal role during a crisis, as well as helping others, can help boost and protect your own mental wellbeing.’
The study comes days after new NHS England data revealed that the backlog for care grew to 5.5 million patients at the end of June 2021, up from 5.3 million patients the month before.
The data was preceded by an Institute for Fiscal Studies model found that concerns that the backlog could reach and exceed 13 million people are ‘well within the realms of possibility’.
A separate report from the British Heart Foundation found that cardiac waiting lists alone could take five years to clear.