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A study of over 11,000 members of the Health and Social Care workforce across the UK has revealed that the workforce is continuing to struggle with the changes implemented due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These changes have increased work demands resulting in increased staff burnout, stress while reducing staff morale and job satisfaction.

The collaborative research project led by Ulster University and supported by researchers from Queen’s University Belfast, Bath Spa University and King’s College London conducted surveys and focus groups with nurses, midwives, allied health professionals, social workers and social care workers about their wellbeing and coping strategies. Now in its fourth phase, the research collective has been charting the experience of the HSC workforce’s mental wellbeing, quality of working life, burnout and ways of coping at four timepoints in stages since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During November 2021-February 2022, the HSC workforce reported working more hours overtime since the start of the pandemic with 60% reporting feeling overwhelmed by increased pressures. Despite this, nearly two-thirds of employees across the UK did not take up employer support while workers in Northern Ireland were least likely to take up employer support.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, 20% of respondents were able to work from home all the time, while 34% could work from home some of the time, compared to 36.7% prior to the pandemic.  Social workers were most likely to work from home.

Principal investigator of the study Dr Patricia Gillen, Reader in Nursing and Midwifery Research and Development at Ulster University and Head of Research and Development for Nurses, Midwives and AHPs, Southern HSC Trust, commented:

“Despite a public perception that things in society are returning to normal, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is still acutely felt by the HSC workforce. We’ve been charting their experiences since May 2020 and worrying trends are developing in relation to staff burnout and a decline in mental wellbeing. The lack of support and recognition within this workforce is now beginning to take its toll on the already exhausted workers.

Respondents recounted how they often felt the brunt of the service users’ frustrations with limitations in service provision, staff sickness and sustained staff shortages also adding to increased work related stress. Through this study, frontline, managerial and Human Resources (HR) staff have continued to highlight the importance of their employers demonstrating an understanding of the needs of their staff as HSC services, systems and infrastructure rebuild and respond to the changing needs of services users.

The Good Practice recommendations detail how HSC organisations need to share best practice and work collaboratively to maximise support for staff at an individual, team, policy, professional, and organisational level.

Janice Bailie, Assistant Director of HSC R&D Division, Public Health Agency commented:

When many services across society shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire HSC workforce stepped up; they adapted and continued to help those who needed it most. Unsurprisingly this has taken a toll on workloads, and subsequently wellbeing. The findings of this survey will be shared with senior HSC stakeholders, so that they can be considered when recommendations are being put in place for future staff management and support.

The research project was funded by HSC R&D Division of the Public Health Agency, Northern Ireland the Northern Ireland Social Care Council, and the Southern Health and Social Care Trust, with support from England’s National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Policy Research Unit in Health and Social Care Workforce - PR-PRU-1217-21002. The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the funders, the NIHR or Department of Health and Social Care.

The full report can be found on our website .