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New report finds that current work conditions lead to mental health problems among nurses and midwives

Research conducted by Birkbeck academics in the Department of Organizational Psychology and the Society of Occupational Medicine published today finds that current work conditions pose a significant threat to the mental wellbeing of nurses and midwives.

Nurse sitting on the floor
Image credit: Vladimir Fedotov

A new report commissioned by the Royal College of Nurses has found that under the current work conditions many nurses and midwives are susceptible to burnout, stress and other mental health problems.

These findings come as part of a report, The Mental Health and Wellbeing of Nurses and Midwives in the United Kingdom, that was authored by Professor Gail Kinman and Dr Kevin Teoh from Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology, and Professor Anne Harriss, President of the Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) and an experienced nurse.

The research was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, but reveals that nurses and midwives were already facing extraordinary levels of work-related stress prior to the current health emergency. While the majority of nurses and midwives remain deeply engaged and believed they make a difference in their patients’ lives, the report suggests that under the current conditions it is hard to maintain a high level of care for patients.

Professor Kinman said: “Action is urgently needed to improve the mental health and wellbeing of UK nurses and midwives and the COVID-19 pandemic has raised additional concerns. The additional demands placed on staff by the pandemic means their wellbeing is likely to deteriorate further if the findings of our report are not acted upon. Our report has highlighted the need for evidence-informed, systemic interventions to tackle the causes of work-related stress in the sector and we have identified some initiatives that might be particularly effective”.

Professor Harriss adds: “The report clearly highlights the lack of knowledge and training of managers to deal with the high level of stress experienced by nurses and midwives. For example, many ward managers receive minimal, if any, training regarding the impact of shift work on the health of staff. This knowledge is essential when planning staffing rotas to mitigate any possible negative impact on health.”

 The report also identified that nurses and midwives are more likely to encounter bullying and harassment, with black and minority ethnic groups at a greater risk than any other groups. A ‘culture of silence’ surrounding these issues means that organisations have not taken steps to tackle bullying and harassment in healthcare settings.

Dr Teoh said: “Our report highlights the excessive demands experienced by nurses and midwives in the UK and how this affects their mental health. It also identifies areas where our knowledge is very limited, such as the experiences of ethnic minority nurses and midwives and how their needs can be best addressed”.

The findings highlight that action is needed to address the systematic issues that are threatening the health of healthcare professionals. This includes creating safe spaces for staff who commented that discussions of mental health were stigmatised and information about support wasn’t easy to access, leading to a culture of ‘presenteeism’. The report also recommends introducing more flexible work options in order to improve work-life balance and providing more resources.

Since concluding their research, evidence of further mental health concerns for nurses and midwives relating to the lack of Personal Protection Equipment, the increased health risks they face and the death of their colleagues highlight the need for urgent action to support healthcare workers.

Deepa Korea, RCN Foundation Director says: “The challenges faced by the nursing and midwifery profession in the current climate means that the mental health and wellbeing of nurses and midwives has never been more important. The Foundation will continue to focus on this critical issue to ensure it receives the attention it deserves.”

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