First responders and NHS staff proved more resilient during early days of pandemic

A new study has revealed first responders and healthcare workers experienced lower levels of psychological distress than the general population during the first lockdown.

The research led by Professor Nicola Gray and Jennifer Pink, from Swansea University, and Cardiff University’s Professor Robert Snowden, compared levels of distress between different occupational groups and the general population in Wales during June and July 2020.

The study involved 12,989 participants and was supported by many public and private sector organisations including all seven Welsh health boards, the four police forces in Wales, the Welsh Ambulance Trust, and the Fire & Rescue Service.

It not only found first responders and healthcare workers experienced lower levels of distress, it also identified higher levels of psychological resilience in fire and rescue employees and police staff when compared to the majority of other worker groups. After accounting for factors of gender, age and deprivation index (which are all associated with psychological distress), fire and rescue employees were still half as likely to have experienced distress during this time.

Professor Gray, from the College of Human and Health Sciences, said: “We compared measures between different keyworker occupations and the general population and found some surprising results. Police, NHS healthcare workers, and fire and rescue workers all reported lower levels of psychological distress than the general population.”

Professor Gray said that, while the data painted a relatively positive picture of psychological functioning in first responders and healthcare workers during the beginning of the pandemic, this may have been a temporary situation.

A key theory of emotional functioning during disaster situations forecasts an initial increase in psychological wellbeing immediately following the impact of a disaster.

This is particularly associated with people who help others, and who have a role in being able to help others cope with adversity.

However, this ‘heroic phase’ of improved wellbeing is frequently followed by a large psychological decline in wellbeing, which maps onto a period of disillusionment and feelings of hopelessness. Follow-up research is investigating if this drop has happened to the first responders and health care staff.

Researcher Jen Pink said: “In disaster situations, being productively helpful and selfless brings psychological benefit, elevating levels of emotional wellbeing. However, during the first phase of lockdown the restrictions placed on the majority of the Welsh population to remain home and minimise social interaction prevented them from performing these positive acts, and thus from benefitting emotionally during this difficult time.

“In contrast, those in public-facing first responder and healthcare roles were able to help others, be helpful and altruistic and therefore gain a boost in psychological wellbeing.”

The research, titled Psychological distress and resilience in first responders and healthcare workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, has just been published in the British Psychological Society’s Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.

Future research will now look at data in later stages of the pandemic to see if there are different points in the trajectory of a disaster and whether this impacts different occupational groups differently.

Professor Snowden said: “Given the important relationship which resilience has when maintaining psychological wellbeing, these findings underline the importance of fostering resilience across occupational groups, in particular for those who may face particularly challenging situations on a daily basis and whom we rely upon for helping us navigate the challenges of the Covid pandemic.”

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