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14 ways to protect mental health – and get things done – during the coronavirus crisis

by in Coronavirus, COVID-19, GP Practice Management, Stress

GP practices – as is the case with all healthcare organisations across the globe – are currently trying to deal with unprecedented pressures. This, in turn, is putting staff under greater pressure than ever – which is why practices are being urged to consider the mental health and wellbeing of their staff.

“There’s no escaping the fact that practice staff are under pressure – any manager who can’t see it doesn’t deserve to be a manager,” one PM told us. “The sheer scale of uncertainty in all aspects of their lives is having a detrimental effect on mental health and wellbeing – and it’s not going to get any easier soon. We all need to keep this in mind when we’re dealing with staff – and we need to look after ourselves too.”

These seem like wise words, which is why Practice Index has compiled a list of tips – gathered from practice managers, workplace mental health experts and The British Psychological Society (BPS) – to help us all look after the mental wellbeing of practice staff.

  • Clarity of thought is utterly essential. Stripping away the unnecessary and looking at what you need, rather than what you want, clears essential space. Space is absolutely in situations like the one we find ourselves in.
  • Discipline is essential too, according to one PM. “Ensuring that we are working on exactly what is needed at exactly the right time – and not getting sidetracked or bogged down with unnecessary tasks – will help us manage the pressures.”
  • Leadership must be visible. To manage stress, where you can, guide staff to the resources they need, however basic. This could be resting, speaking with family, eating properly…whatever it takes. BPS advice is to LOOK-LISTEN-LINK – you don’t need to have all the solutions all the time, but you will need to tolerate and manage uncertainty for yourself and your staff, be open to staff and put people in contact with available resources. The final point on this is to not wait for problems to arise – look for anybody who doesn’t seem themselves and act.
  • Clear communication is required. Communicate to staff regularly and frequently in simple clear ways. Use video and written means if necessary – and include people who are having to self-isolate by using video conferencing tools, so they don’t feel isolated. Again, actively encourage expression of concerns and fears, especially if the likes of furloughing are involved.
  • Thanking the team regularly makes a big difference. “I make a point of thanking my team very regularly. We should take time to celebrate success. My staff worked overnight to draw up our plan of action when the country went into lockdown, so I rewarded them with some Amazon vouchers and some elbow bumping!” the PM said. “At the heart of it all is ensuring people recognise that the exceptional work they’re doing is celebrated and very gratefully appreciated.”
  • Empathy goes a long, long way. Another PM commented to us: “Recognise that team members are working under exceptional circumstances, with a great deal of fear about their families, and their own personal ability to continue working, given the fact that we’re talking about a pandemic and a health crisis, rather than some existential threat, is really important. We have to show empathy. It’s important to think about how to give thanks and rewards, assess the needs of staff and provide space for ongoing peer support.”
  • Invest time in making technology work. Staff will inevitably, it seems, end up in self-isolation at some point, so take time to ensure your chosen technology is working – and everybody knows how to work it. It’s no good rolling out a video conferencing app if nobody (or just one person for that matter) knows how to use it.
  • While perhaps easier said than done given supply issues, ensure consistent access to physical safety needs. Adequate PPE (sufficient to permit leaving ‘hot zone’ for breaks), adequate training, a protected place to rest and sleep are essential for staff to do their jobs and maintain decision-making abilities.
  • As touched on earlier, ensure human connection. Establishing explicit peer support mechanisms can be helpful, such as daily buddying, including explicit permission to ‘look out for your buddy’. Access to protected spaces for staff to be together even for limited periods is a good idea where possible.
  • Providing psychological care to patients and families is key to practice staff wellbeing – it has a clear knock-on positivity. So, the BSP recommends creating systems of communication between relatives/loved ones and clinical staff. Create a way for staff to manage end-of-life care in a dignified manner, with family involvement (if desired).
  • Normalise responses. This situation is unprecedented so it’s OK to not be OK. Experiencing symptoms of stress doesn’t mean you aren’t up to the job, it means you’re human. “We’ve given staff permission to step back if they need to and ensure breaks and rest are enforced,” a PM shared with us – and it seems to be relieving some of the stress.
  • Rely on core NHS, organisational and professional values in making decisions because judgement could well be clouded by tiredness, pressure and stress. Don’t be afraid to ask for support, advice and guidance, or to share your thinking with others.
  • Pace yourself and your team – this is going to be a marathon, not a sprint.
  • Finally, it’s worth noting that NHS staff have been granted free access to some mental health apps until December 2020. They include Unmind, a platform that provides a range of tools to help with stress, sleep, connection and nutrition; Headspace, a mindfulness and meditation app aimed at reducing stress and building resilience; Big Health’s Sleepio, a clinically-evaluated sleep improvement programme, and Daylight, a cognitive behavioural technique to manage worry and anxiety.

Further reading: Advice and information on how to look after your mental health and wellbeing during the coronavirus outbreak has been published by the government. Click here to check it out.

How are you managing mental health – of yourself and your staff – at the moment? We would love to hear your thoughts either below or on the Practice Index Forum.

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