Agency staff made to work on Covid wards are struggling with their mental health

Healthcare workers put their lives at risk out on the frontline of the coronavirus crisis – but some are left out of the conversation. 

The rapid spread of Covid-19 launched the world into a long-running public health crisis. The UK’s NHS staff have rightly been praised as heroes for their tireless work in treating patients suffering from the virus, at a risk to their own health and safety. 

However, while healthcare agency workers make up huge numbers of the staff you see in just about any hospital, their contribution to the NHS goes largely unacknowledged.  

Basically, what healthcare agency workers do is provide short-term, temporary services to wards that are short-staffed. According to research undertaken by Nuffield Trust, ‘80% of nurse vacancies and 90% of doctor vacancies’ are filled by temporary staff through an agency. 

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The way it usually works is that workers will sign up to shifts offered through their agency – which will be on different wards or even in different hospitals – based on what day, time and location works for them. 

With workloads increasing in NHS hospitals which are already struggling for staff, healthcare agency workers help to make up the numbers on wards and provide care to patients in a variety of settings. 

But, while agency workers get to sign up to specific shifts on wards of their choice, they are sometimes asked to move to other wards when they arrive at work. This includes Covid wards. 

Elijah is a 23 year old healthcare assistant working in Leeds, who explains that the wards he works on ‘usually have a staff member pinched every day to go to a Covid ward’ – himself included. 

He says that, with the second lockdown currently well under way, the number of patients being admitted for treatment of the virus are massively on the rise, and as a result ‘I usually get asked to move to a Covid ward about once a week.’  

While he is used to being moved from place to place if he is needed elsewhere, there is something different about being asked to move to a ward on which Covid is rife. 

‘I worry about health and safety,’ Elijah tells us, because ‘staff are usually stretched thin, and often there are more agency workers than ward staff’. 

This means that, even though a Covid ward might be ‘a new environment for a lot of the workers,’ there often aren’t enough regular staff there for them to feel supported. This can ‘interrupt the flow and delivery of care to patients’. 

These aren’t Elijah’s only concerns – obviously, his own health and safety is put at risk working on these wards, too. But, while NHS staff can rely on sick pay if they contract the virus, agency workers can’t. 

You see, for many, agency work is their sole or primary source of income. Because they are temporary workers, though, they don’t have the same safety net in place as those who have full time contracts, even if they work full time hours. 

‘There just isn’t the same level of support for agency workers as there is for NHS staff,’ and this makes working on a Covid ward even riskier for them. 

Elijah goes on to say that ‘moving wards for anyone can be stressful, because it’s a new environment with new staff, and there will be different conditions and levels of care needed that you may not be used to.’

Being moved to a high risk ward is even more stressful because of the health and financial risks attached. 

‘It can cause me a lot of anxiety,’ he explains. ‘Especially when I  have been working a few 12 hour days in a row, it can feel particularly draining to adjust to that kind of environment.’ 

‘At the end of the day working on a Covid ward, I always feel more mentally and physically exhausted and struggle with going to work again so soon after. This is made worse by the fact that I then worry about being moved back to a Covid ward again.’ 

‘I also have some processing difficulties and sudden changes in plan can make me feel very nervous. To not really have a choice but to work somewhere else can cause me to lose a lot of the confidence that I would normally have on wards I regularly work on.’

This doesn’t mean that agency workers have no say at all in the matter, because they do have the option of refusing to move. But, in some cases, this can result in being sent home, ‘which means you lose your wage.’

Elijah acknowledges that it is necessary for workers to be moved from time to time, ‘and it would be unfair to leave the Covid wards so badly staffed when people can be moved.’ 

But, ‘there should be more consultation on moving and regular Covid testing, to make agency staff feel more at ease.’

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