SURVEY: How public sector comms people have fared working through the pandemic part 1: the big picture

When the story of the first 12-months of the COVID-19 pandemic is written it will record more than 100,000 dead.

It will also record Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ‘Stay home, save lives, protect the NHS’ address to the nation.

Nothing will record profound sense of shock and alarm in those first few days in what was the beginning of a long trudge to try and find normality.

Without question the death rate would have been far higher but for public sector communicators who were enlisted into the biggest crisis since World War Two.

But what impact has it had on them?

The price paid

Stress, longer hours, a retreat to working from home and a loss of face-to-face office connections have been what fire, police, NHS, local and central government comms teams have faced.

In July 2020, I started a survey of fire, police, NHS, central and local government communicators which has turned into a rolling tracker that’s captured some of the ebb ands flow.

It reveals the secret price paid by those asked to support those on the frontline.

In many places there is no off switch and burn-out is present. In others, the changes have been welcomed.

Worryingly, it’s a price paid with a tsunami of mental health problems, deteriorating physical health, increased isolation and stress often in the face of a lack of leadership, information and resources.

In this blog post I run through 12-months of figures that are likely to throw a long shadow across the lives of those involved.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“Feel like I’m “Living at work” rather than “working from home” – no boundaries between working day and down time.”

 “I have gained a lot from the pandemic so this outweighs the hard times.”

Most say it’s getting easier

At last, in summer 2021 the indicators finally show that working in the pandemic is getting easier. More than 40 per cent gave this positive feedback in the survey. That’s a figure that’s double those who think it is getting harder.

Q: Is working in the pandemic getting easier or harder?

But health continues to suffer

Across the pandemic, mental health and physical health among public sector people has taken a battering.

Worryingly, this isn’t improving.

With physical health, 52 per cent say it has worsened in the most recent survey in April and May 2021. Mental health has also taken a beating with 58 per cent of public sector people reporting deteriorating mental health.

This is the canary in the coalmine for the sector.

Q: Is your mental health getting better or worse?

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“Working from home gave me more time to exercise at the start and end of the working day.”

With a real national push to care for our wellbeing I have actually worked out more and more consistently since the start of the pandemic than before.

“Less time and motivation to exercise, higher stress.”

“I’ve had a couple of emergency hospital visits due to stress related symptoms. Found myself crying with anxiety and work overload and no real support.”

The positives still hold

Across the pandemic, a consistent three out of four have reported they have felt as though they are working for the common good.

Around half have felt through the last 12-months as though they are part of a team.

Feeling as though you are part of an organisation that has felt valued has been more problematic. In June 2020, 41 per cent reported this but it slipped to a quarter through the remainder of the year rallying again to 40 per cent in May and June 2021.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

 “Had a couple of serious wobbles, but learnt better how to deal with them.”

The negatives remain

The darker side of the coin in working through the pandemic has been the impact on home.

A third have consistently experienced problems with home schooling and a tenth with looking after a loved one.

Stress as spring 2021 turned into summer remains an endemic issue with 74 per cent reporting it as an issue – a four per cent improvement on January 2021.

However, lack of direction has also been a problem.

In April and May 2020, 40 per cent reported this with UK Government and a third reporting the same issue with home governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

A lack of leadership from the comms person’s own organisation has improved by five points to 25 per cent.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“Lack of support at work and unappreciated in my job, became more apparent during covid. Felt like comms was seen as disposable as we weren’t physically seen as often.”

A lack of resources is biting

Enough tools and staff to do the job has remained a consistent problem with 23 per cent reporting a lack of staff sliding to 36 per cent in the most recent study. This was mirrored by a lack of resources to do the job surging from 24 per cent in 2020 to 38 per cent in April and May 2021.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“Working in a comms team means you’re often on your own working with services, and not being in the office means you often feel very isolated from the rest of your team. My manager has been absent and I’m struggling to fight to get things taken seriously by upper management and having to stand up to lots of people within the service… and failing to win the arguments a lot of the time. This is one of the biggest impacts on my mental health – but there are so many others.”

Winter was the hardest period

Each period of the pandemic has had its own challenges and problems. The survey showed winter with lockdown 2.0 was the hardest for 45 per cent of public sector comms people. That beat lockdown 1.0 with 26 per cent. Regional lockdowns in the autumn (11 per cent) was third toughest with just four per cent saying the opening months of 2021 were hardest.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“It worsened during the winter 2020/21 but improved as restrictions lifted.”

Q: Which period of the pandemic was hardest?

The working from home dilemma

It’s clear that working from home has been Marmite. Some love some don’t. As we look at how we go back to the office heads of comms and managers need to know that they’ll have people keen on the idea and those who hate it.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“Working from home is less stressful and tiring than travelling to the office every day. Prefer the peace and quiet to think.”

“Home has merged into office and the boundaries of the working day have disappeared- I feel like the usual 9-5 mon to drive has been replaced with 24/7 and after a year, my mind, body and, dare I say it, passion has wilted away.”

Abuse is rampant

More than 12-months into the pandemic and abuse is worsening.

Those seeing abuse aimed at their fire, council, police, council or government department has risen from 27 per cent seen weekly to 31 per cent. Verbal abuse aimed at individuals has almost doubled from seven to 13 per cent as a weekly incident.

Racist abuse is seen daily by 16 per cent of respondents – that’s up from nine per cent last summer.

The back to business-as-usual mistake

The figures are alarming and they paint a picture which can often be toxic for those enduring it. There is a health penalty to be paid and how to respond to support staff is one of the challenges facing people.

There is anecdotal talk of a big push to normality when there’s nothing to give.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

My mental health has taken an absolute battering, mainly down to the workload. Not we’re coming through the other side of the pandemic all I want to do is rest and reset, but business as usual has kicked back in and the chief is talking about three months of hard work to get the organisation back on track. We haven’t got any more to give.”

In part two, I’ll look at the data country-by-country and also sector by sector.

GUEST POST: Learning how to better communicate with diverse communities during COVID-19

Each phase of the pandemic has unwrapped new challenges. Now we have a vaccine, why aren’t people coming forward to take it? Polly Cziok talks about the groundbreaking work the London Borough of Hackney have been involved with to map their diverse communities, listen to them, create bespoke content for them and then refine it. People want to be informed not manipulated. It’s an approach that is starting to work.

Polly will talk more about Hackney’s approach in a Zoom chat with members of the Public Sector Comms Headspace Facebook group at 1pm on Thursday February 25. Members can sign-up here.

A year ago as Covid-19 crashed into our lives, the comms directive from central to local government was very clear.  Our job was to use our channels to put out the messages that they would provide. Any talk of local nuance or developing local or regional campaigns was met with suspicion, and to a certain extent that was understandable.  After all, the first rule of emergency comms is to control the message tightly. Many of us have worked on major incidents in our careers, and the command and control system of comms is vital, as we seek to forge order out of chaos.  

However, in recent years – and nowhere was this more clearly illustrated than in the dreadful aftermath of the Grenfell fire – the importance of rapid community engagement, of listening to people affected by crisis, and acting on that insight, has become more widely understood.  And Covid isn’t an ‘incident’ in the usual sense, it’s an epoch-making public health crisis that has affected every human being on the planet.  

In the midst of this global crisis, our lives have become intensely local, for many of us our existence shrunk down to our homes, the local park, and the corner shop.  And the recognition of the importance of local comms solutions, based on insight, and tailored to local communities has grown throughout. When we look at the huge disparities in vaccine take up, across ethnic groups and different areas of the UK, it is clear that national ‘one size fits all’ messaging really isn’t working for everyone. 

Amongst most people, vaccine hesitancy is just that.  People feel nervous, unsure, and indeed hesitant.  None of our residents talked about 5G…

Polly Cziok, London Borough of Hackney

This is dangerous stuff in the middle of a manufactured, post-Brexit, culture war.  Vaccine hesitancy amongst so-called ‘BAME’ communities (a highly problematic phrase in itself, but especially in the hands of the Daily Mail), is very real, especially amongst Black and South Asian populations.  This needs to be tackled urgently to avoid deepening the health inequalities that Covid has both exposed and exacerbated.  But it needs to be done sensitively, and without stigmatising communities.  And the key to that is insight and proper, active listening.  

We’ve carried out an extensive vaccine insight programme in Hackney, and the learning has shaped all our communications. Amongst most people, vaccine hesitancy is just that.  People feel nervous, unsure, and indeed hesitant.  None of our residents talked about 5G, microchips, nano-technology, Bill Gates, or aliens.  Those who had fears talked about the speed of the vaccine development, potential side effects, worries about the 12 week gap, about how rushed the whole thing seemed to them, how it would react with existing conditions, wanting to wait and see.  Some talked about experiences of medical racism, and lack of trust in government messaging.

In our focus groups we tested a range of messages, developed with our in-house behavioral science specialists, ranging from the fear inducing (‘you will be at risk if you don’t get vaccinated’) to the emotive (‘you could hug your family again’).  We tested the social norming messages (‘everyone else is doing it!’).  We showed a range of sample campaign posters.  The feedback was very clear.  People do not want to feel that they are being persuaded or manipulated. They want to feel informed.  They want their questions answered.They want clear facts from trusted messengers so that they can make their own decisions.  And who are those trusted messengers?  Well, guess what? They’re not social media influencers, celebrities or (dare I say it?) politicians.  They’re not even faith leaders or community peers – although those can be helpful advocates.  The most trusted messengers on vaccination are doctors, nurses, and public health professionals.  Go figure.  

As the vaccine is rolled out across the age groups, this job is going to get tougher.  Our research, and that carried out at a London level, shows that younger age groups are more likely to distrust the vaccine.  That’s why, as part of Keep London Safe (the London boroughs joint Covid comms effort), science teachers in Hackney have developed a set of teaching resources for every school in London (and anywhere else that wants to use it) to make sure young people are informed and can reassure their elders.  We know that people who get their news from social media are more likely to be vaccine sceptics. We know from early insight with our Charedi Jewish community that older people have been keen to take it up, but that some younger people, especially women, have been affected by disinformation about the jab causing infertility.  

So we keep listening, we keep learning, we keep tweaking our messages, creating new content, discovering new channels.  We’ve created an insight toolkit for London boroughs, to help people structure polling, focus groups and message testing.  Anyone is welcome to use it, but in the spirit of sharing, if you do, please share the insight that you gain so we can add it to our collective knowledge.   

I’m really proud of the role we are playing in this work, of my Hackney team (special shout out to Florence Obinna and David Besbrode, our mighty insight and data analysis duo), our public health colleagues, our community partners, and of everyone in local government who is developing and sharing such amazing best practice.   I hope that one of the legacies of Covid – as we move together to tackle some of the factors behind health inequality in the UK – is that local insight will be a key driver, and not an afterthought.

Resources

The Hackney Council web resource for schools on COVID-19 vaccine resources aimed at schools.

Polly Cziok is Strategic Director, Engagement, Culture, and Organisational Development at London Borough of Hackney.

Picture credit: istock.

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