The coronavirus pandemic is taking a “significant toll” on women working in health and social care in the UK, a new survey has revealed.
It found that 72% of respondents believed their job was having a greater negative impact than usual on their mental wellbeing as a result of Covid-19, while 52% said the same for their physical health.
“Women make up more than three-quarters of the NHS workforce, so we cannot afford to let these issues be ignored”
Those behind the survey warned of the risk of mass staff burnout unless action was taken to better support female workers, who make up the majority of the health and social care workforce.
The call to action matches those advocated by Nursing Times as part of its Covid-19: Are You OK? mental health campaign.
The poll was carried out in June by the NHS Confederation’s Health and Care Women Leaders Network, in order to gain a deeper understanding of how the pandemic was affecting women in the field.
Out of 1,308 respondents, the majority (29%) identified as managers, while the second highest number of responses came from nurses (19%), followed by care assistants and other support roles.
Psychologists, doctors, allied health professionals and social workers were also represented.
The findings highlighted the challenges for women of balancing work-life commitments during the pandemic.
For example, since the start of lockdown, respondents had taken on an average of 11.22 additional hours each week of personal caring responsibilities, such as having to look after children who were off school.
However, the survey showed that women were only able to reduce their working hours by 1.44 hours per week to account for the extra pressures at home, although most said they were supported to work flexible hours.
Meanwhile, the level of unpaid overtime being completed by respondents had increased by more than seven hours a week, compared with what they were doing before the pandemic.
One respondent said: “I am exhausted. I can’t buy food on my day off as I want to hide under the covers and sleep. I can’t face being jolly and excited for [my] children, who are scared Mummy is going to die of Covid.”
The findings also showed that more needed to be done to ensure all women in the workforce were able to access appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep them safe from Covid-19.
While many respondents (40%) said PPE was available, in the sizes needed and that appropriate training had been given, a signiﬁcant proportion (21%) said this was not the case.
The report accompanying the results of the survey highlighted concerns of one respondent who said staff in their unit were wearing gowns in size XL, when most required a small or medium.
“Whilst we recognise the issue of sizing is not unique to gender, it is more relevant to those who are of a smaller frame. It is inevitable there is a physical impact on those wearing PPE that is too big for them,” stated the report.
The survey also found differences in experiences between “sub-groups” of women who responded to the survey.
Those from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities reported feeling less safe sharing their personal concerns with managers than white respondents, despite evidence people from BAME backgrounds were at higher risk from Covid-19. The same was true of staff with adult dependants compared with those without.
In addition, the survey found that respondents with children had taken on more non-working caring respondents since Covid-19, and were working more unpaid overtime than those without.
Women with children were also more likely to report that work had taken a harder hit on their physical and mental health since lockdown than those without children.
The report authors described the revelations of worsening health and wellbeing among a large proportion of respondents as one of the most concerning findings of the survey.
They said it was clear that the pandemic was taking a “signiﬁcant toll on women working in health and care” and that, going forward, the need for decent mental health support would be “vital”.
“It shows the critical role which managers play in fostering a culture where we feel safe to share these concerns”
The network is concerned that if the issues highlighted in the report were not addressed, an epidemic of burnout, stress and exhaustion could occur, causing staff to quit.
However, it stressed that the findings of the survey “do not necessarily paint a uniformly bleak picture”.
Among the positives that were highlighted included innovations in remote care, reductions in administrative tasks and the development of support networks.
In addition, the survey found that support from managers had been “strong” overall, with superiors listening to concerns and showing “compassion and understanding” to the extra pressures faced by female staff due to Covid-19.
Among its list of recommendations, the network is calling for requests for flexible or reduced hours to “always be accommodated” unless there were exceptional reasons why this was not possible.
The network wanted to see wellbeing champions appointed in every organisation and called on national body NHS England and NHS Improvement to ensure appropriate psychological support for all who needed it.
Meanwhile, it said ongoing provision of appropriate PPE and training was essential and that staff should be encouraged to speak out if this was not delivered.
The importance of staff being able to talk about any personal concerns they were facing during the pandemic was also highlighted and the network said BAME staff and staff with adult dependants should be signposted to alternative speaking up channels if required.
Samantha Allen, chair of the Health and Care Women Leaders Network and chief executive of Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, said: “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.”
Dr Henrietta Hughes, national guardian for the NHS, described the BAME inequalities revealed in the report as “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’,” she added.