COVID-19 is pressure testing our systems and the impact on frontline workers is alarming

23 JULY 2021

COVID-19 is pressure testing our systems and the impact on frontline workers is alarming

Charles Sturt study on effect of COVID-19 on frontline workers finds alarming rates of anxiety, depression and burnout among those at the forefront of the pandemic.

  • COVID-19 has led to an expansion of work and work that is more complex, more intense and more demanding for our frontline workers in Australia
  • Study found rates of depression and anxiety were over twice that found in the general population
  • If the causes of stress on these workers are not addressed, our next crisis may be a tsunami of people quitting this sort of work
  • More than 1,500 police, paramedics (ambulance staff), child protection and community health personnel participated in the study

Research by Charles Sturt University academics on the effects of COVID-19 on frontline workers has confirmed what has long been suspected.

A team of Charles Sturt researchers were awarded a COVID-19 research grant in 2020 to conduct a study that would benefit the health, wellbeing, business performance, communities and economy of Australia post-pandemic.

Their research into the effect of COVID-19 on frontline workers, including police, paramedics (ambulance staff), child protection and community health, has been completed and the findings are extremely concerning.

The study investigated the levels and causes of stress, depression, burnout and anxiety in 1,542 respondents, aged 25 to 65 years old.

The incidence of depression in the frontline responders was three times the rate of the general population, and 57 per cent higher than that experienced by hospital based health staff during COVID-19.

Anxiety levels in frontline staff were more than double that seen in the general community, and almost 40 per cent higher than hospital-based staff. Participants were very worried about contracting COVID-19 themselves and extremely anxious about the consequences of passing it on to their family and friends.

Findings reveal the burnout rate in frontline workers was twice that reported in similar occupational groups prior to COVID-19 and 24 per cent higher than that found in hospital staff during COVID-19. Other dimensions of workplace burnout, such as emotional exhaustion and loss of empathy for others, were similarly high.

More than half of the participants showed high levels of emotional exhaustion. This is alarming in frontline ‘caring’ roles and indicates the ongoing impact that COVID-19 continues to have as we adapt and respond to new variants and outbreaks.

Overall this study has revealed that the mental health impacts for frontline workers such as police, paramedics, child protection, and community health staff appears to be even higher than that reported for hospital workers (and the negative mental health impacts these workers are high). This may in part be attributable to work that requires going into unknown and uncontrolled environments, and having to enforce constantly changing public health orders. In addition, frontline staff are often confronted by strong community backlash reactions, particularly when community members don’t agree with the public health orders.

Charles Sturt Professor in Leadership and Management with the School of Business Russell Roberts said he expected to see negative mental health impacts, but not to the extreme and disturbing levels revealed in the data.

“We thought there would be additional stressors but we were alarmed by the levels of burnout, depression, anxiety and intention to quit.”

Professor Roberts said it was vital to understand what the stressors are to use this data to implement solutions.

The data revealed extremely high levels of ‘intention to quit’. Unless we do better to support our frontline staff, this will have serious implications for a post-COVID-19 world.

“The impact will be that people won’t want to work in these jobs anymore, and we will have a workforce shortage crisis in these critical community service organisations” he said.

Professor Roberts said there was much to be learned from these alarming statistics.

“The data suggests the most effective mental health interventions are practical and preventative,” he said.

“Increasing access to mental health programs for frontline workers is good but it is not nearly enough. The focus must be on prevention.

“The data revealed the major predictors of poor mental health and burnout were overwork, the increased complexity of work, insufficient practical support and guidance and confusing, ambiguous and conflicting communications. The good news is that these are all factors that organisations can address.”

He recommended that key public service organisations need to practically acknowledge the good work and engage with frontline workers to better understand what they need to do their job sustainably.

“Frontline workers have a heart for community. In times of crisis they will go ‘above and beyond’ in the call of duty.

“They will rise to the occasion, but we cannot expect them to work under these circumstances forever. We must support these staff and we should be starting now. These are the people we rely on in to keep our communities safe and well.”

CEO of the Police Federation of Australia Sergeant Scott Weber said he supports the findings of the research on behalf of the more than 65,000 police officers across the country.

“The report highlights that we must protect the protectors,” he said.

“Police have been the face of social distancing and the added workload is decimating police moral, causing burnout.

“We need to support the police out there protecting the community.

“The recommendations from the report must be acted upon to protect and support our frontline workers.”

General Secretary of the Public Service Association Mr Stewart Little said the report reflects what the union had observed, an increase in distress among the child protection workforce.

He said the pandemic exacerbated an already stressed system, with one in five case workers lasting less than two years in the job. The union said more needs to be done to support these workers.

“COVID-19 has exacerbated workplace stress for child protection case workers. Throughout the pandemic, authorities have recorded an increase in domestic and family violence, Child protection case workers are on the frontline responding to that,” he said.

He said there is greater crisis in the community but limited resources, which has placed strain on the industry, placing workers at high risk for burnout.

“Overstretched workers are facing increasingly volatile situations with limited mental health and peer support case workers and are recording high levels of stress,” he said.

The full report can be viewed here.

Media Note:

For more information or to arrange interviews with Professor Russell Roberts, contact Nicole Barlow at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0429 217 026 or news@csu.edu.au.

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