A new study from researchers from the University of Gloucestershire’s HERA Lab and the University of Limerick’s RISE Lab has found that the resilience, burnout, and wellbeing levels of frontline keyworkers in the UK and Ireland are being affected by different factors. It has been widely reported that the UK’s relatively slow response into initiating lockdown measures has had an impact on morbidity and mortality from COVID-19, and there is now evidence to suggest that this slower response has also had a negative impact on frontline workers’ resilience, burnout, and wellbeing.
This study (part of the CV19 Heroes Project) was started in March 2020 to track the wellbeing of all sectors of frontline workers in the UK and Republic of Ireland as they deal with working on the frontline. Over 1300 people working in health and social care settings, in supermarkets and delivery services, and from other emergency services and logistics sectors took part in the study. The findings of this first report from the project examine the differences of those based in the UK and those based in Ireland due to the very different strategies employed by both governments in the early stages of the pandemic. With the UK leading with a herd immunity strategy, and Ireland leading with a more conservative approach to attempt suppression at the time of data collection, the two states started their pandemic response with very different approaches and considerations.
This study examined the overall picture of how frontline workers were doing between March 31st and May 15th 2020, a time period spanning the first surge of the pandemic in both nations, starting very shortly after lockdown measures were announced in both. The participants were surveyed on a variety of aspects regarding their work setting (such as their employment sector), and about aspects of their experiences during the pandemic, including whether they, anyone in their family, their friends, or their colleagues had been infected with COVID-19; and how they viewed their government’s response to the pandemic in terms of its timeliness, effectiveness, and appropriateness. Participants also completed a detailed survey to assess psychological aspects that are associated with heroic action, including their meaning in life and levels of altruism. To assess whether there were modifiable aspects associated with their welfare, the team also assessed levels of resilient coping styles.
Overall, workers in the UK and Ireland showed similarly low levels of wellbeing and high levels of burnout. However, frontline workers in the UK reported comparatively poorer wellbeing and judged the response of their government less favorably than Ireland-based frontliners. Workers in Ireland appeared to be more certain about whether or not they (or their family, friends, or co-workers) had experienced COVID-19 infection. This may be a reflection of the relative availability of testing in Ireland compared to the UK during these early stages, where the number of available tests per 100,000 population was significantly higher in the Republic of Ireland.
In the UK-based sample, judgement of the government’s timeliness in their pandemic response (which scored an average of 3.6 out of 10, compared to those in Ireland that rated their response as 5.7 out of 10 on average) was associated with worse outcomes for resilience, burnout, and wellbeing. For the Ireland-based subsample, the only pandemic-related variables associated with these outcomes were certainty around whether they (for resilience and burnout) or their family (for burnout) had had COVID-19.
For the frontliners as a whole group, resilience, burnout, and wellbeing were associated with higher presence of meaning in life and higher altruism, and lower search for meaning in life. These aspects are associated with heroic action, and are demonstrated here in the huge variety of frontline workers that took part, showing that heroes are found in all types of frontline roles. For burnout and wellbeing, judgement of their governments’ timeliness appeared to be protective in terms of frontline worker wellbeing.
Resilient coping is an important factor in each of these outcomes, and in both of the country-based samples. This is important, because resilient coping skills can be taught, and a key recommendation from this work is that frontline keyworkers be provided with support geared towards developing their ability to cope.
The finding of judgment of government response being associated with frontline worker welfare is a stark message for future public health emergencies if they arise. The UK has seen higher morbidity and mortality, that has now been assessed to have been preventable had the response been swifter and more decisive. The findings from this study add an extra layer of detriment, with those workers in the UK seeming to suffer as a result of this slower response as well. As decisions remain to be made regarding continuing surges of the pandemic, the evidence suggests that governments should ensure their actions are timely and resolute.
Dr. Rachel Sumner of the University of Gloucestershire said: “Our evidence shows that the impact of indecision and delay has not only cost lives and health, but also has a cost in terms of the welfare of the people that stand between us and the disease, and their wellbeing should be considered more strongly in future decisions regarding lockdowns”.
Dr. Elaine Kinsella (University of Limerick) added: “This study highlights the role of wider social factors on individual-level wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic. These findings are likely to have relevance for future government and organizational policy-makers who have opportunities to shape the conditions for frontline workers throughout the remainder of the COVID-19 pandemic and future societal crises.”
This study has been published in the open access journal Frontiers in Psychology, and is the first study of several to follow from the CV19 Heroes project.