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'On a desert island with a storm coming in': finding mental health support for NHS staff

In recent weeks I have been interviewing those on the front line of Cambridgeshire’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
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“The caring professions – nurses, doctors or cleaners in a hospital – they are the last people to think of their own welfare,” says Paul Taylor

Health chiefs predominantly, but also individuals receiving urgent care and re-telling their experience of Covid and community leaders.  

But it was Paul Taylor that brought home the experiences of those full-square on the front line – the doctors, nurses, porters, care workers, GP receptionists, paramedics and care home and hospital cleaners. 

Taylor is project lead for staff support at the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust – and it is to him and his team that many of these have turned for help as the pandemic threatens to overwhelm. 

“I went in to be a care assistant and helping people with their hair – I never expected to be dealing with eight to 10 people dying in a shift,” was how one caller put it.  

The hub doesn’t discriminate. If you work on the front line of care – in whatever capacity – the stress can suddenly become too much.  

As he says it is not a sign of weakness to #DoTheRightThing and ask for help but a sign of strength. 

Mental health is paramount for those working in our hospitals, nursing homes and surgeries. 

"Having had the pandemic ongoing for 18 months, the pressure on staff and their resilience to manage has been quite significant,” he says.  

The NHS on its own is the biggest employer in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and once you factor in social care staff the numbers are massive.  

The Cambridgeshire hub is funded by the government and similar centres set up across the country. Funding is expected through to 2023. 

“My role is to run the hub and make sure we have a range of specialist services in place for staff,” he says. 

These range from occupational health to ensuring partner organisations are in place to provide the support. 

Staff can use employee assistance lines to make contact and referrals to a range of additional services can be made available.  

He says the hub works to enable recognition is made of “everything staff have been through and then it is up to us to ensure not just their welfare, but they are able to continue in their jobs.  

“We also have a callback service so, if for an example, a psychologist is needed then they can call them”. 

Taylor says depending on the level of need, fast tracking help with suitable therapies could be offered.  

“The number of calls we receive can fluctuate – the important thing for us is to get the message out to staff so they know help is there,” he says. 

“For example, I can recall another caller describing it as ‘like being on a desert island with a storm coming in and there’s nowhere to hide’.” 

Taylor has links with Relate to help those where the pandemic has damaged people’s personal relationships.  

“If for example a staff member’s relationship is at risk, they can have up to six funded counselling sessions,” he says.  

“Services can be put into place right from the beginning - the last six months has seen the hub really come into its own.” 

The key message of “you are not alone” was a principal goal, he says. 

“It could be something like ‘I just can’t face going into work and seeing another death’ to receptionists in a GP practice who are getting a lot of hostility from patients complaining that ‘it’s not the same as before the pandemic’."

Other examples, typical of the health care sector, he says, are where some staff had been redeployed and from working in one service and not dealing with acutely ill people, find themselves suddenly working with people in intensive care.  

Guilt, he says, often irrational, was another issue he says staff could sometimes feel and this, too, could cause mental health challenges.  

“One thing is so clear is that the caring professions – nurses, doctors or cleaners in a hospital – they are the last people to think of their own welfare,” says Taylor.  

The Hub Helpline number is 0808 8010377 – Monday to Friday 1-4pm. 

From September 6 the hours will increase to 11am-7pm Monday to Friday. 

Staff can also go to the website http://itsallcomingtogether.co.uk/staff-support-hub/