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.
“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?
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.