By Lindsey Appleby-Flynn, Connect2Care’s mental health and adult social care expert
Dealing with loss and bereavement can be extremely difficult under any circumstance. However, the unfathomable number of COVID-19-related deaths in care homes has completely changed the way staff both work and grieve.
With the UK in the midst of a third national lockdown, the final week of January saw the weekly number of COVID-related care home deaths in England and Wales rise to the highest levels since May.
It is a time when we must acknowledge the struggles that care workers are facing as a result of the pandemic. Some have prematurely lost not only service users, but also colleagues, friends and family members. The virus has drastically changed the way that we both work and live overnight, triggering a chain reaction of mental health problems faced by care workers across the UK.
What we’ve learned from the first wave of Coronavirus
During the first wave, COVID-19 was confirmed or suspected in the deaths of over 12,000 service users in care homes. During this time, the government eventually chose to lock down our care homes, adding isolation wings, scrambling to provide additional PPE and stopping all face to face visits with service users.
Despite these strict measures, much of the support came too late and the chaos caused by the first wave hit care homes the hardest. With untested residents and unprotected staff due to delays in receiving the correct PPE for the job, care homes felt neglected.
Care workers faced rampant changes to their workplaces, fearing for their safety and the safety of their loved ones at home, leaving their mental health in jeopardy.
With face-to-face visits prohibited, care workers country-wide stepped up to provide the emotional support and companionship usually provided through visits from friends and family members. However, this also meant that these care workers were the only people able to be with extremely unwell service users in their final days and moments. The UK’s care workers provided support over and above what, as a nation, we could ever expect of them, but that came at a cost to their own mental wellbeing.
In a study involving 709 NHS doctors, nurses and other clinical roles, about 45% reported symptoms consistent with a probable diagnosis of PTSD, severe depression and anxiety. With similar working conditions in care homes, this is worrying news. In order to decrease the risk of long-term mental health problems, it’s important that we first recognise the specific problems care workers continue to face as a result of the pandemic.
How care homes can weather the COVID storm moving forward
With the typical cold-weather respiratory infections in season, confusion is inevitable as flu and COVID-19 having overlapping symptoms. With this in mind, care workers face further pressure to keep themselves and all they come into contact with safe during the pressures of winter.
Whilst there is a light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine rollout, England’s Deputy Medical Officer, Professor Johnathan Van-Tam has suggested that COVID-19 will be ‘with humankind forever’. Therefore, we need to better prepare ourselves for a rocky road ahead.
We need to build resilience in our care workers, without relying on experience from the first wave alone. It’s very common for staff to become attached to their service users, so providing them with the tools to deal with loss and bereavement will be key.
Four ways to help care workers manage loss and bereavement at work
Despite the time pressures placed on our care workers in the current climate, it’s vital we encourage them to allow themselves to grieve for those they lose. Here are four simple ways that you can help your care workers to manage loss and bereavement at work:
Encouraging care workers to talk about those who’ve passed away can really help the grieving process. It’s important to note that some people may not want to talk at all, and that’s OK too. Sometimes being in the same room and sitting together quietly can be reassuring.
Enjoying their favourite things
Doing an activity that the person who has passed away enjoyed can be an enjoyable and comforting way to honour their memory. This could be anything from engaging in a hobby, listening to their favourite music, or watching one of their favourite movies.
Memory jars can be an impactful method to help remember positive times during the bereavement process. People can put anything into the jar to pay tribute to someone they’ve lost.
Ceremonies in care homes can help people accept death and offer a sense of continuity. It’s also an opportunity to provide a support system for, not only your care workers, but the service users in your home too by allowing people to reflect on the good times spent together.
At Connect2Care, we’re experts in both adult care and mental health. As a result, we’ve developed a short interactive online training course on the topic of ‘Dealing with Loss and Bereavement’, providing key information and techniques to support those dealing with these issues.
The past year has shone a spotlight on the vital role that care workers play within our society. It is now time to ensure that their own needs are being met in terms of mental wellbeing. Support your staff with the tools they need to recognise, manage and cope with emotions experienced due to loss and bereavement.