By Ben Phillips | August 5, 2021
Protecting your own and your staff’s mental health and wellbeing is an ongoing process, and we don’t yet know what the long-term impact will be for care workers who have worked tirelessly during the pandemic.
CMM spoke to the founder of the Samaritans’ NHS and Social Care Helpline, Ben Phillips, to gain a better understanding and to find out how Registered Managers can encourage their staff to reach out for help when they need it most.
CMM: What planning went into setting up the helpline?
Ben Phillips: Most people know Samaritans for our core emotional support line for those struggling to cope or in distress, which is free, confidential, and available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. However, as well as offering support through email, face to face (suspended during the pandemic) and even letter correspondence, we also have a history of developing support that is tailored to audiences who might experience specific challenges and therefore have different support needs. For example, we have programmes of work tailored to the military and within prisons to ensure we really are there for everyone. To develop these specific programmes, we work closely with stakeholders within the industry and partner with relevant bodies or organisations (like the Ministry of Defence) so we have real-lived experience insight, and we can understand what support works best for them and what the best ways are to reach them.
We have a long-standing relationship with both the NHS and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). Considering the unique strains and pressures placed on the shoulders of health and social care staff in their day-to-day work, Samaritans had been discussing with both organisations for some time that there may be a need to create more tailored support for our fantastic care workers.
In March 2020, the nation went into lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic and most people were instructed to work from home to stay safe and protect others. We knew that health and social care staff, continuing to go into work every day to deal with the crisis and act as our frontline against it, would be placed under unprecedented pressure and demands. It was clearly time to put our plans into action and both the NHS and DHSC helped us to deliver it.
CMM: How did you develop a dedicated helpline so quickly in response to the pandemic?
Ben: We’re very proud of the achievement of getting this up and running so quickly – a matter of weeks – in response to the perceived need. We did this by prioritising this project across the wider organisation and couldn’t have done it without the funding from our NHS and DHSC partners which enabled us to put the required resources behind the project.
By agreeing as an organisation that this dedicated service was a priority across the board, we were able to focus the fantastic expertise of different staff members and volunteers on a real joint effort.
CMM: Did Samaritans consider responses and thoughts from care staff when deciding how best to implement the helpline?
Ben: To determine the kind of support needed, we worked closely with stakeholders within the health and social care environments to learn what challenges people were facing. We put people with lived experience at the heart of our work. To achieve this, we ran workshops and spoke to people who worked within the industries in a variety of jobs to make sure we were accounting for different roles and responsibilities and their accompanying stresses.
We learnt that what care staff really needed was an outlet to offload, to talk about what they were going through and be listened to. An emotional support offer that was independent from their employer, confidential and one that gave them the room to process what was happening and recognise how they felt.
CMM: What can social care staff expect from a call?
Ben: Callers can expect to be met with a trained Samaritans listening volunteer, who will listen to them without judgement. You can say as much or as little as you’d like. We’re a completely confidential service and you can stay anonymous. It doesn’t matter what role you hold; we support everyone. We’ve heard that some callers find getting things off their chest to a stranger a welcome relief. They’ve said it’s much easier as they don’t feel like they need to censor themselves, as they might if they were speaking to support offered through their employer. Speaking to a stranger also means they don’t feel like they might burden someone they care about which, for some, is a real barrier to opening up with a friend or family member.
Similarly, when you’ve finished a hard shift or day at work, many feel they don’t want to take their problems home with them and by calling our dedicated NHS and Social Care support line, they are able to offload over the phone before they get home. Furthermore, some callers offload before bed and find that it helps them sleep better than they did before. You can tell us about events of the day, the intensity of your work, your fears about the pandemic or absolutely anything else that you’re going through – Samaritans are here to listen.
CMM: All calls are of course confidential, but what were the common themes from the calls?
While all calls are confidential and you remain anonymous, we have identified broad themes and trends affecting care staff. Many have felt exhausted and stressed. Some have felt anxious about catching the virus and taking it home to their families. Some have felt guilty for shielding and that they were letting their colleagues down. Others are frustrated about their work’s impact on their own wellbeing and on the wellbeing of their family members, affecting their relationships.
Since we launched the dedicated service for health and social care staff in April 2020, we’ve seen a change in the types of calls we receive. Last spring, the majority of calls were focused on the acute impact of the pandemic, with care workers calling to talk about what had taken place at their shift or offloading about the anxiety they felt as they prepared to go into work. A year on, we do still receive those calls but now we’re hearing more about the chronic impact of the pandemic as well.
Care workers have been under undue pressure for such a long time, they are processing how working on the frontline during the pandemic has affected them. They are processing things they might not have at the time, for example, witnessing a high level of bereavements and death during the first and second peaks. Now, we’re receiving more calls from some staff who are having feelings of burnout or are scared about others experiencing burnout and leaving their profession, leading to less resource for them to manage. At the start of the pandemic, many said they were running on adrenaline and it’s only now that we’re hearing from people who are beginning to experience PTSD symptoms.
Symptoms such as flashbacks, often only come to light later as a form of delayed trauma. Therefore, it’s vital to remember that although restrictions may be lifting, and things hopefully will improve regarding Coronavirus rates, the need for support is still the same and will continue to be for some time afterwards as we try to assess the pandemic’s long-term impact on front line workers’ mental health.
As this remains an uncertain and changeable time, I urge anyone who might be struggling to reach out for support. You can call our dedicated helpline for health and social care staff for free on 08000 696222, 7 days a week, from 7am-11pm.
CMM: How can Registered Managers encourage their staff to use the helpline?
Ben: Those in health and care staff roles require and revere resilience as a key characteristic in order to manage the tough nature of their day-to-day work, even before you factor in the pandemic. And those in a carer role or a provider of support may find it hard to recognise that they need support themselves and are often the last to ask for help. But everyone is human and can go through challenging times in life.
These examples of deep-rooted conditions and working cultures within the health and social care sector previously may have perpetuated a stigma around speaking about mental and emotional wellbeing, thus creating barriers for staff to seek support. Over recent years, the sector was taking steps to tackle the stigma around seeking support and creating parity between mental and physical health for their staff and the pandemic expedited this. Prioritising frontline workers and care staff’s wellbeing, was put at the top of the national agenda and Registered Managers have a crucial role to play in this.
Registered Managers can help create a supportive working environment for care staff by regularly checking in on their team and asking how they are feeling. If you spot anyone who may be struggling to cope, talk to them privately and see if they need any help. While staff may feel uncomfortable speaking to their manager about work challenges and the impact on their wellbeing, this is still an opportunity for a manager to remind their team about the support that is on offer such as our helpline and emphasise that taking care of their emotional health is paramount.
We know some establishments have created wellbeing or break rooms which promote the support available and encourage care staff to use it to make personal calls or have a cup of tea and a chat with a peer to give them some respite from the challenges of the day.
Those in management and leadership roles may feel like they shouldn’t let their staff know that they are struggling too. While looking out for your team is an important part of a manager’s job, again, it’s important that managers also look after themselves and call Samaritans when they need to.
Care workers can call Samaritans’ free, confidential emotional support line dedicated to NHS and social care staff 7 days a week, between 7am – 11pm on 0800 0696222
Registered Managers can also find out more about mental health from the following websites:
- https://www.mentalhealthatwork.org.uk/toolkit/ourfrontline-socialcare/to see what other available support might suit your needs.