LONG READ: STRESS, ABUSE AND LIFESAVING RESULTS. The impact of the pandemic on the UK public sector country-by-country and sector-by-stress

So far across the UK, 130,000 people have died and millions of lives have been affected.

It is a story is still being written and the heroes who will populate the story will include doctors, nurses, police and paramedics.

However, through it all public sector communicators have played a massive role from warning and informing to encouraging 90 per cent of the country’s adults to have the COVID-19 jab.

From June 2020, I’ve been running a tracker survey on how the pandemic has been affecting public sector communicators across the UK.

In this post, I’ve taken the chance to go through 19,920 individual responses from 1,660 communicators over a 12-month period.

A tracker survey was run in June and October 2020 and again in January and June 2021. What the data has reveals is a sector that is paying a shocking price for living as a public sector communicator in the biggest pandemic in a hundred years.

Mental and physical health has been damaged by individuals who have gone the extra yard for days, weeks, months and now a timeline that can be measured in years.

Employers, managers and heads of comms should not underestimate the impact of the pandemic on teams. Behind the wall of black windows on a Teams call are people who have performed heroically and some have paid a high price.

This survey hopes to track their successes as well as the prtice they’ve paid.

If you work in the sector scroll down and look sector by sector as well as country by country. While many experiences of working in a pandemic have been shared others have not.

For example, Scotland and Wales have enjoyed a clear sense of direction from their home government. England and Northern Ireland have not.

Police communicators have faced a remorseless barrage of abuse and stress – the highest of any sector.

What is striking is the sense that a sense of working for the common good never collapsed during lockdown 1.0, the summer of eat out to help out, the dark days of lockdown 2.0 and then the easing of measures in Spring and summer 2021.

COUNTRY BY COUNTRY

If the pandemic blighted all parts of the UK it had a different effect for public sector comms in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In England and Northern Ireland there was a marked feeling of a lack of leadership in the home government. In Ulster, this issue never dropped below 71 per cent while in England the rate was about half.

However, in the devolved administrations of Wales and Scotland there was a clear sense of leadership from their governments. By summer of 2021, just 2.2 per cent complained that the Welsh Assembly had no sense of direction compared to 11.1 per cent in Scotland.

fig 1. A lack of leadership from my home government

ENGLAND: the high sense of a lack of leadership from home government

In England, communicators reported the highest rates issues with home schooling – 43.9 per cent had this as a problem in January 2021. Isolation rates also peaked at this time with 48.1 per cent saying they felt more3 isolated.

Comms teams in England also reported the highest sense of being short staffed peaking at four in ten reporting this in Autumn 2020.

However, a sens eof working for the common good has been maintained at around 70 per cent with a sense of working as a team level at around 50 per cent.

Fig 1: A sense of working for the common good, June 2020 to June 2021 sector by sector

England also reported the worst single rate of worse mental health – 69.5 per cent saying it had deteriorated – in Autumn 2020.

Racist abuse was seen by around 10 per cent of people every week. While the abuse of high-profile footballers leads to a well-deserved campaign and a crackdown by police the same abuse elsewhere online thrives.

SCOTLAND: Most stress, spiralling targeted abuse but a strong sense of working for the common good

Despite a clarity of leadership from devolved Government communicators in the country reported the highest rates of stress and isolation.

Eight in ten by summer 2021 felt more stressed and 61.1 felt more isolated.

That these figures come through when the worst of the pandemic death rate is over suggests a long tail for mental health that deserves to be taken seriously.

Physical health has also been worst amongst comms people in Scotland by summer 2021 with 61 per cent reporting it was worse than before the pandemic.

Racist abuse was lowest in Scotland and never higher than 4.1 per cent of people seeing it aimed at their own organisation. However, around four in 10 in Scotland saw general abuse aimed at their organisation every week. Targeted abuse has risen in Scotland from 2.7 per cent reporting it in summer 2020 compared to 30.5 per cent 12-months on.

What has pulled through comms people from north of the border is a clear sense that they are working for the common good. An impressive 83.3 per cent felt this – 14 points up on England.

Home schooling in Scotland was the most complained about in the UK with a peak of 52.7 per cent raising it as an issue in June 2021.

Leadership from home government was strong with as low as one in 20 complaining of a lack of leadership in June 2020 – compared to a consistent one in every two communicators in England.

WALES: Strong teamwork and a clear sense of direction

Communicators in Wales have been hard hit by the pendemic but the physical impact has been less than other parts of the UK.

The surveys show 37.7 per cent report a worse physical condition amongst comms people from the Principality. Home schooling complaints were registered by around a third a shade lower than other parts of the UK.

There has been a strong sense of leadership from the Welsh Assembly and the best rates of leadership in the UK from people’s organisation.

Teams have generally felt well staffed with the lowest sense of being short staffed at less than a fifth early in the pandemic.

Comms teams in Wales had the strongest sense of teamwork across the UK with as many as two thirds buying into this ethos.

NORTHERN IRELAND: Poor national leadership

The worst guidance of any UK home government is reported loud and clear.

Complaints about this lack of stretegic direction shine through with never less than seven in ten complaining about it throughout the four surveys.

This is hardly surprising given that until early 2021 there was no devolved government.

As a result, Ulster public sector communicators had the lowest sense of working as a team with the figure dwindling to less than a third by summer 2021. By the same point in time, almost eight in 10 said that working in the pandemic was harder than before.

However, Northern Ireland fire, police, local and central government communicators had the lowest sense of isolation amongst comms people with two thirds not reporting it as a problem.

Despite everything, a sense of working for the common good was highest in this country and stands at 85.7 per cent in summer 2021 – 14 per cent ahead of England.

Also a postive, mental health rates were the best in the UK at 57.1 per cent the same as before – almost double that of England and Wales.

SECTOR BY SECTOR

NHS: communicators are most likely to feel they were working for the common good

Communicators in the NHS were the most likely to say they felt they were working from the common good.

From Summer 2020, 81.3 per cent shared this attitude which maintained through the winter before dipping to 73.6 per cent – the highest figures across the public sector.

Fig 1: NHS communicators attitudes through the pandemic

However, stress levels in NHS comms have been the highest in the public sector. In January 2021, 85.3 per cent said they felt more stressed than before the pandemic.

The health sector was also been the most likely to say that it was short staffed. Less than a third felt this at the start and building to almost half of people sharing this view by June 2020.

However, NHS comms people did not report they felt more of a team than other sectors – the level stayed constant at around 50 per cent.

For abuse, the NHS comms team have consistentlty had to deal with the lowest rates of targeted abuse. Never more than seven per cent of staff saw this targeted abuse weekly. They also saw the least racist abuse of the public sector with the peak of 7.8 per cent seeing something weekly coming in January 2021.

Winter saw the toughest time for abuse with 31.2 per cent seeing incoming abuse – the third highest level.

A lack of leadership from the organisation maintained as an issue by around a fifth.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT: communicators were most likely to face abuse

Pity the council comms team as they presented the Public Health face of the pandemic locally.

Theirs has been a thankless task in delivering the messages at a local level and reporting COVID-19 infection rates.

Stress rates have been endemic starting at 67.3 per cent of respondents reporting it in June 2020 before peaking at 85.3 per cent in January the following year.

Isolation has also been reported by nearly half of respondents.

However, the sense of working for the common good has maintained despite it all with around eight out of 10 consistently feeling this sentiment

Fig 2 Local government communicators attitudes during the pandemic

However, abuse has been a problem. The highest rates of abuse were reported in local government during gthe pandemic with around 40 per cent of comms people seeing abuse aimed at the council weekly through the period.

Racist abuse was highest in this sector with a peak of 16.4 per cent seeing such abuse weekly in the autumn of 2020.

CENTRAL GOVERNMENT: comms saw the least racist abuse

Less than one in ten Government communicators saw racist abuse while the sense of working for the common good – at about 60 per cent throughout – was the lowest.

Perhaps, these are unsurprising figures for an organisation which works on more strategic levels.

Fig 2 Central government communicators attitudes during the pandemic

A sense of teamwork was the highest anywhere in the public sector in autumn 2020 with 62.5 per cent agreeing with this sentiment.

However, physical health suffered with around half reporting worse condition and even by summer 2021 60 per cent were still reporting worse mental health.

The worst month for abuse at central government accounts was October 2020 with a spike of 37.5 per cent seeing abuse.

FIRE AND RESCUE: Comms saw the least abuse but stress high

A pandemic has a focus on health which saw fire and rescue comms people stand away from the eye of the storm.

Fire and rescue comms saw the lowest incoming abuse with no reports of abuse aimed at individuals for three surveys. An average of seven per cent of staff saw general abuse aimed at the organisation – an eighth of that facing councils, for example.

Perhaps surprisingly, this sector has seen the worst effect on mental health across 2021 with more than 60 per cent of team members reporting a deterioration.

fig 3: Fire and Rescue comms attitudes during the pandemic

However, this sector did not escape stress. A pandemic affects all parts of society and stress levels were in line with other sectors. Around 60 per cent found their mental health worsening.

POLICE: comms took the brunt during enforcement in stress and abuse

While the NHS may have got the applause in the early months of lockdown 1.0 it fell to police to enforce regulations.

That has proved to be a singularly difficult time to be in law and order.

Police comms have faced the worst abuse online, reported the most stress, felt the most short handed and felt the worst sense of a lack of local leadership from their organisation.

Police also complained of the worst sense of poor leadership from national government with 57.1 agreeing with this sentiment in January 2021.

On top of this they hace the lowest rate of working for the common good – hovering at about 60 per cent through the pandemic.

Almost a third saw abuse weekly – the peak being in January and June 2021 with around 29 per cent seeing it with almost 30 per cent seeing racist abuse weekly from October 2020 to June 2021. That’s four times the amount directed at the NHS.

The numbers are hard reading.

A total of 1,660 responses to surveys in June and October 2020 and January and June 2021 shape the results of this analysis. The study will be continued for as long as the pandemic lasts.

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