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Frontline workers less distressed during pandemic than the public, says new study

16 August 2021

Fire and rescue staff, police and NHS healthcare workers on the front line during the height of the pandemic experienced less distress than the general public, says a study published in a British Psychological Society journal published recently.

Using data from a wide-scale Welsh population survey of more than 12,000 people (June to July 2020), the researchers looked at psychological distress in people working in specific front line occupations: police, fire and rescue, and NHS healthcare workers in comparison to the general public.

Professor Nicola Gray, lead author, said:

“At the start of the pandemic first responders and healthcare workers were more at risk through their contact with the public. You would expect these people to be more worried and stressed than most. However, fire and rescue staff, police and NHS healthcare workers who were dealing face to face with the public reported lower levels of psychological distress than the general public.

“Our study gives an optimistic view of the ability to psychologically bounce-back in these critical occupations. It also shows that playing a crucial societal role during a crisis, as well as helping others, can help boost and protect your own mental wellbeing."

The study, by Swansea University College of Human and Health Sciences and published open access in the British Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, was supported and promoted by many Welsh healthcare organisations, all four police forces in Wales and the seven Welsh NHS Boards, three Fire and Rescue Services and the Welsh Ambulance Service Trust.

The public were encouraged to take part in the survey via social and local media support, and at least 250 members of staff from each of the 22 Welsh local authorities also took part.

More than 12,500 people (aged 16 and over) answered questions about their area of employment, gender, mental wellbeing, relationships and feelings of psychological distress. They also were asked about their work status and if they had a ‘key worker’ role. 

Analysis of the responses showed that half of all working people felt distressed to some extent, except those from the Police and Fire and Rescue who also showed much higher levels of resilience. Further investigation revealed that front line healthcare workers also reported feeling less distressed in comparison with the general public.

Professor Nicola Gray, lead author, said:

“Future research should explore how to enhance resilience for frontline workers who face difficult and stressful situations on a daily basis.”

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