My mind and the pandemic

May 14, 2021

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 (10th to 16th May), CMM’s editor Olivia Hubbard speaks to two registered care home managers about how working in social care impacted on their mental health during the pandemic. In the second post of the series, Mark Topps shares his story.

 ‘A lot of my friends said to me: If the pandemic happened again, would you work in a care home? And I think I would because I’m that kind of person who puts people first.’

Husband, father, winning social care leader and now regional manager at Caremark, Mark Topps has been vocal about his experience of COVID-19 in a learning disability care setting. Mark met Dawn Bunter and joined the Caring View chat show so they could support each other in their journey to ‘normality’. Mark’s wife is in a vulnerable group and, unlike Dawn who returned home to her family at the end of each work shift, Mark made the decision to live alone during the pandemic.

Protecting life

‘The pandemic is a long story – it’s like a film. I managed a 13-bed learning disability care home in Essex. My wife was high risk, so she was shielding, and I’ve got three young children. The last thing I wanted to do was to infect my wife and family. My wife and children moved out of the family home. They were gone for 283 days – just a few days short of a year.’

Marks tells me about his first experience of a positive test in the care home and he says there was a lack of support and understanding on who to turn to for help. ‘I remember trying to get hold of someone to contact Public Health and the local authority and no one returned the calls,’ recalls Mark. ‘I remember thinking at that moment that we are positive and we are on our own here. Trying to get hold of equipment and masks was so expensive. We didn’t have the funds for PPE. I recollect saying to my wife that I didn’t want to send the staff in there because one of the residents might be positive.

‘I would meet up with my children in my car and shout through the window, but it always ended in tears. They would want to get out of the car and see me. I only did it about a couple of times because I didn’t want the visit to end in tears. We had video calls and then there would be arguments about who was going to end the call first. We would spend time writing letters and sending cards back and forth. But then there was a delay in the post – so I would be late in responding to the news.

‘I missed all my family’s birthdays, Christmas and Easter. For me, it was when it snowed and none of my kids had experienced snow before – that really hit me. I imagined the snowball fights and their experiences and that really brought home how much I was missing out on those key moments. I just couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I was concerned about the long-term impact of not seeing my family and the impact on my children. I didn’t want them to look back and be like, “Where was Daddy during all of that? Why wasn’t he there?” I would find that really hard.’

Something that caused Mark great anxiety was deciding how to care for all the residents and how to ‘prioritise’ residents for one-one, close contact care. With varying age groups in the care setting and risk of spread of the virus, these were questions and decisions which Mark and his colleagues had to make.

‘I remember sitting at home and trying to think who we would prioritise,’ recalls Mark, ‘who we would see and who we wouldn’t see. Trying to research who was at the highest risk, young people are at a lower risk, so we won’t prioritise them, and then trying to feed that back to my staff. Why we weren’t going to prioritise someone and then trying to tell families.

‘It then makes you doubt yourself as to whether you should be prioritising someone or not. As the younger people were technically lower risk, you thought they were safe, but it was hard. But then should you prioritise them, because they have longer to live at the end of it? Everything you did, you double guessed yourself.’

Left in the dark

Marks tells me that there was such a delay in support, testing, vaccines and guidance for people with learning disabilities in care settings. One of the greatest causes of anxiety for Mark was trying to keep up with everything: writing guidance, risk assessments, documentation.

Then there was the isolation that crept up on him. ‘I don’t think I ever realised the impact until coming home to an empty house, which usually would have three children in, loud and busy – it really hit home. I would watch something on Netflix – it wasn’t even a sad programme – but I would just start crying for no reason.

‘When I look back now, I think I was so close to burnout. It was so full-on all the time. All the questions. With everything going on in my professional life, it definitely took a toll on my personal life. I think I was on the go so much during the pandemic, that I never really stopped to think about it and think about accepting help.

‘Looking back, I think I should have sought some help. I put everything down to being overworked, not getting enough rest, and my diet was all over the place.’

Support for care workers

Mark hugely supports the work that The Care Workers’ charity has been doing. ‘The Care Workers’ charity is great. I fully support them. However, I do worry that frontline care workers might not know about them unless an employer tells them about them. I know my staff needed the support, but they didn’t necessarily know about it.

‘Something that I find hard is when you signpost staff for support, but you never know if staff are going to take you up on that offer and engage with mental health services. I know there is only so much you can do but some people may not want to talk about it. I think it’s important to give people time to talk. My staff would ring me at, like, 2.00am in the morning. Halfway through the pandemic, it was the anniversary of one of the members of staff who died – who was the life and soul of the home. On top of COVID-19, we then had that anniversary. Staff were trying to grieve on top of everything else going on.’

Walking away

Mark was a care home manager at Little Wakering House care home until recently. Having spent much time away from his family during the pandemic, Mark changed his frontline care home manager role to his new job, which predominantly sees him working from home.

‘I still work in the sector; my wife and I had the discussion the whole way through about when it would be safe to come home. Since I’ve left the role, my sleep routine, my diet, is 100% better than what it was. A lot of my friends say to me, “If it happened again, would you do it?” And I think I would because I’m that kind of person who puts people first because that is what I do – I look after people, that’s my role. But I would be more aware of the impact on my own mental health. If I did it again, I think I would make sure that we had someone external to manage mental health, so it wasn’t just me. Sometimes when a manager is in charge of the staff’s mental health, there is no one there to manage the manager’s mental health.’

Which tools of support have you offered your staff? And did you feel that managers were left to cope with their workforce’s mental health, while your own had to take a back seat? Share your comments and views of Mark’s story.

Visit the Care Workers’ Charity website for more information about the mental health support programme.


About Mark Topps

Mark Topps has worked in the care industry since 2005. He has experience of supporting people with various needs, including elderly, learning disabilities, mental health and children. He has worked in both domiciliary care and within care homes and has experience of developing new businesses and supporting failing services. Mark holds the equivalent of a master’s degree in leadership and Management and has won numerous awards, both for his work within the sector and also for his work campaigning for the rights of those living with dementia and learning disabilities.

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