Research shows mental health impacts of COVID-19 on NHS Highland staff

Research carried out by a team from the University of the Highlands and Islands and NHS Highland has examined the impact of COVID-19 on the mental wellbeing of health and social care workers in the area.

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“Supporting health and social care workers’ psychological wellbeing should remain paramount” - Dr Johannes De Kock

The research project received £44,581 of Scottish government funding as part of the Chief Scientist Office’s call for rapid research into COVID-19 in March 2020. Findings from the research have been used by the UK parliament and the World Health Organisation to inform policy surrounding efforts to support staff wellbeing during the pandemic. An academic paper on the research was published in January in Cambridge University Press’s online research journal BJPsych Open, with another paper due in JMIR Mental Health.

The project was led by Dr Johannes De Kock, Research Fellow in the university’s division of rural health and wellbeing and Chartered Clinical Psychologist at NHS Highland. He was assisted by a team led by Professor Sarah-Anne Munoz, Professor of Rural Health and Acting Head of Division of Rural Health and Wellbeing, and by NHS Highland practitioners. The main aims of the study were to assess the mental health of NHS Highland health and social care workers during COVID-19 over time; and then to examine whether use of a specifically tailored version of the NHS-approved mental wellbeing app, My Possible Self, could help support these workers during the pandemic.

The first part of the staff research showed that levels of anxiety and depression reported among NHS Highland health and social care workers were similar to those of staff in COVID-19 urban hotspots.

Dr De Kock then worked with My Possible Self’s design team to digitally modify the content of the wellbeing app to suit the NHS Highland context, including a fictional nurse called Iona to guide staff through relevant modules.

The modified app, the ‘NHS Highland Staff Wellbeing Project’, was used by 169 staff over a four-week period, allowing the research team to monitor changes in levels of anxiety, depression and mental wellbeing, as well as resilience.

Dr De Kock explained: “Our results from this pilot study showed potential benefits in using such tailored digital interventions to support the psychological health and resilience of staff working through the COVID-19 pandemic. Further studies with larger samples are now needed to investigate digital interventions’ support for staff working through the tail of COVID-19 and its aftermath.”

In terms of how these results might impact on future policy and clinical practice, Dr De Kock added:

“Supporting health and social care workers’ psychological wellbeing should remain paramount, not only in areas with high rates of COVID-19 infections, but also in areas outside of these hotspots. Strategies to support health and social care workers’ mental health must consider both targeted interventions and broader system-level initiatives to support well-being.”

Fiona Hogg, Director of People and Culture at NHS Highland, said: “The findings of this exciting new project will feed into our long-term health and wellbeing strategy and plans, and build on ongoing support including our Employee Assistance programme, the National Wellbeing Hub, investment in increased psychological support for health and care colleagues, alongside dedicated government funding for wellbeing initiatives. We’re excited about the opportunities that a tailored wellbeing app could offer, especially in our remote and rural context.”

Professor Sarah-Anne Munoz said:

“This has been an important research collaboration between the university and NHS Highland. Combining knowledge from different research disciplines, service delivery and tailored digital support has been shown to have real impact. Supporting the mental health of health and care staff, particularly those in rural areas and small teams, is an important theme for the university and I hope we can continue to work with NHS Highland on this.”

Dr Jude Halford, lead for clinician mental health, Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland, said:

“This is a really important study, and the findings bear out the experiences of our workforce. Improvement in staff mental health is essential. It benefits them and helps keep health and social care services running, thereby providing benefit to the public whose own mental health has been impacted by the pandemic.

“The pandemic has caused extra demands, stress and pressure on staff, making the requirement for mental health care intervention greater. We welcome NHS Highland’s work on this initiative and the support provided by Scottish Government.”

A summary of the research can be viewed on the Chief Scientist Office website.