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Mind survey reveals toll of pandemic on ambulance workers' mental health

Wednesday, 31 March 2021 Mind
  • Mental health charity reveals ambulance service worst affected when it comes to impact of COVID on mental health

  • Survey data shows increased prevalence of poor mental health across police, fire and ambulance services, with seven in ten (69%) staff and volunteers reporting a worsening of mental health over the past year

Data from a survey of almost 4,000 staff and volunteers across police, fire and ambulance services in the UK* has laid bare the scale of poor mental health among emergency responders. The statistics come as Mind announces the relaunch of their Blue Light Programme of wellbeing support for the emergency services, which has been funded by The Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

The online survey found that mental health has worsened across 999 services, but that ambulance staff were worst affected. Only one in four (26%) ambulance staff reported their current mental health as very good or good compared to just over one in three police (35%) and almost two in five (39%) survey respondents working within the fire service.

Ambulance staff were the most likely (77%) to say their mental health has worsened since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, compared to police (66%) or fire (65%). One in four (25%) 999 staff and volunteers surveyed rated their current mental health as poor or very poor. The highest proportion of respondents saying they had poor mental health were within the ambulance service, at almost one in three (32%). This compares to just under one in four (23%) respondents from the police service and one in five (20%) within the fire service who rated their mental health as poor currently.

Responding to these survey findings, Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind, said:

“We know that even before the coronavirus outbreak, there were high rates of poor mental health across the emergency services. It’s clear from this latest survey data that the mental health of our emergency responder community has got even worse, with ambulance staff and volunteers hardest hit. Blue light staff have told us that working within the emergency services - especially the ambulance service - is a hugely rewarding but challenging job. Our survey data and interviews with 999 staff and volunteers indicate that coronavirus has made these roles even more demanding, as staff are faced with making more difficult and potentially life-and-death decisions on a daily basis, as well as dealing with death and bereavement, in addition to concerns for their own health and wellbeing and that of their loved ones.

“It’s really important that our hardworking emergency responders are able to access support for their wellbeing if and when they need it. Thanks to funding from The Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s COVID-19 Response Fund, Mind is delighted to once again be providing wellbeing support, training and resources to all 999 staff and volunteers via our Blue Light Programme. Over the next year, we hope to be able to reach as many people as possible who need our support. We also hope to help employers embed best practice so that staff and volunteers can continue to access the right support for them in the short and longer-term, as we begin to come to terms with the true mental health impact of the pandemic.”

Ben Hawkins is 22 and lives in Peterborough. He works for East of England Ambulance service as an emergency dispatcher, meaning he’s responsible for prioritising which callers get ambulances and in what order. Ben said:

“At work, I’m a happy, cheery person, but I do struggle with my mental health. In 2019, I lost a best friend to suicide, lost another friend in a car crash, and went through a relationship break-up. This affected me so much that I attempted to take my own life. Thankfully, my friends helped me get through it, although I still experience anxiety and low mood.

“Blue Light staff get sad too and the last year has been especially tough. Christmas Day was especially bad, it was absolutely heart-breaking. For a good few months, it felt like it was just suicide and COVID deaths, all the time. Ambulance staff have been fighting a mental health pandemic as well as dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. As well as dealing with traumatic events, we often get abuse on the phone, even death threats.

“We’re exposed to people’s most horrific hours of their entire lives. It’s a privilege to know in some small way that we have helped but it is tough too. It’s great to hear that Mind’s Blue Light programme is re-launching, I really feel all emergency services staff and volunteers could benefit from extra support for their wellbeing. This has never been more important, as we deal with the fall-out of the pandemic.”

Olivia-Louise Hamilton is 26 and lives in Surrey. She has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and worked for South East Ambulance Service from February 2016 until December 2020, most recently as a dispatcher in the control room. She said:

“It was a high pressure role but it was great, I loved it. For the last couple of years, my mental health has been quite stable but prior to that I had been very unwell. It was difficult when I was in crisis – self-harming and suicidal - because I didn’t want to call an ambulance and be dealt with by my colleagues. Although I wasn’t open about my mental health with all my co-workers, I did speak to my manager and HR team. One of my managers was fantastic. She asked me how my mental health affected me and what support I needed. Under the Equality Act 2010, my mental health met the definition of a ‘disability’ so I was able to get a ‘reasonable adjustment’ to my working hours. For the last three years, I’d have a ‘hibernation period’ – six to eight weeks off just before winter and make the time up elsewhere. When I was off sick for my mental health, they were brilliant with phased returns, starting with five or six hour shifts and slowly building back up to twelve hours.

“I’ve realised how impactful shift work was on my mental health. Now I do ‘normal’ hours, I couldn’t go back. It’s not just the patterns, but the long days – often twelve hours. On a run of shifts, you work, come home, shower, eat, sleep – that’s it. There is no time for leisure or exercise. The main thing that’s improved for me is routine – I eat more regularly and more healthily because I have time to plan. Having a regular sleep schedule definitely helps my mental health and I get more daylight hours. Previously I’d go three or four days without seeing any daylight - I felt like a vampire!

“Now I’m fully open about my mental health, I’ve had so much support from so many people. Both those within and outside the ambulance service seem to relate and it prompts others to speak up too. It’s great that Mind will be delivering their Blue Light Programme again – that extra support is definitely needed within the emergency services.”

Responding to Mind’s survey data, Anna Parry, Deputy Managing Director at the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives (AACE) said:

“Healthy ambulance staff are integral to the services we provide to patients which is why the data emanating from the Mind survey is particularly worrying. However, with demand for ambulance services at its highest ever level, alongside the additional unique demands of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is perhaps unsurprising that our front-line staff are experiencing pressures that are impacting upon their mental health and this is something the sector is working hard to mitigate.

“Promoting safe and healthy working environments for all ambulance staff, as well as volunteers, is a key national strategic aim for AACE and we are working with our members to ensure that progressive employment policies are in place that are designed to assist the creation of a good work-life balance and, in turn, help support staff who suffer from stress related illness – be it work or non-work related.

“Wellbeing support is offered to all ambulance service staff and volunteers at both local and national levels. A primary focus for us is working with Mind and other partners to ensure the suitability and effectiveness of existing support while enhancing understanding and awareness of employee mental health and wellbeing and the range of supports available. We very much welcome the opportunity to continue this work with Mind as part of their Blue Light Programme.”

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