Women are bearing the overwhelming brunt of the “gargantuan challenges” health and care services are grappling with during the Covid pandemic, health leaders have said.
A new study by the NHS Confederation’s Health and Care Women Leaders Network found female health and care workers’s physical and mental health substantially deteriorated due to working during the coronavirus crisis.
The survey, which polled more than 1,200 NHS staff in February and March this year after the virus peaked, found issues with mental and physical health had notably worsened since last summer.
Researchers found more than 80 per cent of women said the pandemic meant their job had greater detrimental repercussions on their emotional wellbeing.
This is a significant rise from 72 per cent of female workers who said the same during equivalent research carried out in June.
And 65 per cent said they were experiencing negative effects on their physical health – a 13-percentage-point rise from the last polling.
The report, which polled nurses, doctors, administrative staff, allied health professionals and managers, warned there are “still many mountains to climb” as services strive to cope with the chaos unleashed by the Covid crisis, as well as dealing with the long-term consequences of the pandemic.
The study said: ”This includes tackling the growing issue of long Covid, meeting increased demand for mental health services, continuing to deliver the largest vaccination programme the UK has ever seen, and addressing a backlog of treatment that could extend to nearly seven million people by the end of 2021.
“As 78 per cent of the health and care workforce is female, the burden of overcoming these gargantuan challenges will mostly fall on the shoulders of women.”
Researchers added: “It is all too easy to regard health and social care workers as providers of care, without recognising they, too, are human. The pressure and expectation of self-sacrifice created by the pandemic has gone on for too long and cannot continue at the same level.”
Seventy-five per cent of NHS workers are women and the nursing sector is predominantly made up of women – with nine out of 10 nurses in the UK being female.
Samantha Allen, chair of the NHS Confederation’s Health and Care Women Leaders Network, said: “As the majority of the health and care workforce is female, a significant burden in overcoming the enormous challenges we face in recovering services will fall on the shoulders of women.
“We need to see tailored support specifically for the needs of female staff and this should include recruitment, retention, flexible working and career progression. We are concerned that if these issues are not addressed, it could intensify the impact on our workforce at a time when the NHS can ill-afford to lose any more staff.”
Ms Allens, who is also the chief executive of Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, raised concerns the pandemic could set the NHS back yet more.
She added: “We need to make sure we look after people, after the incredibly difficult experiences they have been through during the pandemic while supporting patients, families and carers and with the increased responsibilities of caring for children and adults outside of work.
“Looking after our staff will enable us to continue looking after the people who need our services.”
The study found caring duties outside of the workplace have grown since the summer for women workers in health and care - with women taking on an average of around 13 hours extra a week in unpaid caring responsibilities in comparison to before the Covid crisis hit. This is a significant increase from approximately 11 hours extra a week in the last poll.
Rebecca Smith, managing director of NHS Employers, which belongs to the NHS Confederation, said: “Much of the responsibility for caring outside work falls to women, and for NHS staff, this is alongside the additional pressures they have faced working through the most challenging year most of them will have ever experienced.
“We now need additional investment from government, coupled with the existing and ongoing direct support by health and care organisations, to make sure the female workforce is properly looked after.”
Ms Smith did however draw attention to some positive shifts in culture during the pandemic, such as more flexible working and “improved teamwork”.
Dr Henrietta Hughes, National Guardian for the NHS, said: “The pandemic has impacted on us all, emotionally and physically, and has exacerbated inequalities, which can no longer be tolerated.”
The organisation’s last report found women working in the NHS are suffering from serious stress and exhaustion in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
The report, which polled more than 1,300 women working across health and care in England, warned the NHS is at risk of losing female staff due to them experiencing mental burnout during the pandemic.
“I am exhausted,” one woman, who chose to remain anonymous said at the time. ”I can’t buy food on my day off as I want to hide under the covers and sleep. I can’t face being jolly and excited for [my] children, who are scared mummy is going to die of Covid.”