A new psychological study of the CV19 Heroes project has been published in the international journal Social Sciences and Medicine (SSM) Mental Health. In this study, we sought to understand what factors may be associated with the well-being of frontline workers 12 months after the start of the pandemic, with a special focus on solidarity. The results show that the perceptions of solidarity of frontline workers in government and the public were important for their well-being and can be an important protective factor during periods of occupational stress.
Our project, a collaboration between Cardiff Metropolitan University (UK) and the University of Limerick (Ireland), has tracked the well-being of frontline workers since the start of the pandemic in 2020. In several studies, using various methods , we explore the experiences of frontline workers in healthcare and social care, essential retail, emergency services and more. While each sector and occupational function has faced different challenges, our research is driven by the view that all frontline workers face new situations, pressures and prolonged periods of distress triggered by the pandemic and that their experiences are influenced by social and cultural factors. wider.
In late 2020, we conducted interviews with participants to learn about their recent experiences working on the front lines during the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK and Ireland. The findings of these interviews highlighted something quite new – the feeling of solidarity from the government and the public was very important to them. In essence, solidarity refers to sharing goals where both sides share that goal and commit to achieving it together despite encountering some adversity in achieving those goals. Solidarity was palpable at the beginning of the pandemic (for example, in relation to mutual protection from the coronavirus), but for many frontline workers, this has not held up over time. Participants noted that incidences of leadership rule-breaking appeared to be crucial in the dissolution of solidarity. Inspired by these new findings, we conceptualized a theory of solidarity assessment as a potentially important aspect of occupational stress and burnout.
The underlying premise of sympathetic appraisal is this: in an occupational context where your results as a worker depend on the action (or inaction) of others, their solidarity with you as a worker is important. To put this in the context of the pandemic, healthcare professionals working to combat the immediate and direct impacts of Covid-19 need the public to work with them to make their work more manageable. They need the public to do what they can to minimize the spread of infection so their workplaces are not overwhelmed and can manage the trauma and distress of the aftermath of this new pathogen as best they can.
In the early stages of the pandemic, when leadership was speaking very strongly about supporting frontline workers (sometimes called “key” workers or “essential” workers) and the public meticulously adhering to public health regulations, this sentiment of solidarity was strong. Over time, however, and with notable rule-breaking by leading figures in the UK and Ireland, this sense of solidarity has waned. However, frontline workers were still working and facing the tragedies of Covid-19 every day. The constant struggle and effort, coupled with the all-too-frequent disclosure of rule-breaking seen through news and social media, has led many of our participants to lose their sense of meaning, with one participant saying:
“Every day my team asks me why they bother? Why do they keep putting their lives on the line without thanks and find that the government has violated so many of their own Covid laws?”.
To test our solidarity assessment theory, we analyzed data from our 12-month survey to examine associations between perceptions of solidarity by key groups (participants’ colleagues, their organization, their country’s government, and the public) and markers of your physical condition. and mental health. Given that our participants indicated that a lack of solidarity was undermining their sense of meaning in life, and that we demonstrated that meaning is protective against negative psychological outcomes, we examined frontliners’ feelings of meaning over time. Our data show that participants’ sense of meaning significantly decreased from baseline (March 2020) to the 12-month point (March 2021). Thus, we use this marker of meaning as a potential way to explain the relationship between solidarity and workers’ well-being.
To assess the well-being of frontline workers, we measured participants’ levels of burnout, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, levels of anxiety, well-being, and physical health symptoms that are often associated with severe stress (such as the presence of headaches, difficulty sleeping, or gastrointestinal problems). At the 12-month survey point, on average, participants reported reasonably high levels of burnout, PTSD symptoms, low levels of well-being, and negative physical health symptoms associated with stress. Anxiety levels varied from person to person. In terms of solidarity, participants indicated that they felt much greater solidarity from their colleagues and their organizations than from the government of their respective countries or the public. The analysis revealed that the evaluation of the solidarity of the participants of each group was related to their well-being. Participants’ assessment of public solidarity was related to all well-being outcomes – with lower solidarity predicting poorer well-being.
Next, we wanted to see if meaning was a potential mechanism that explained how solidarity might be related to physical and mental well-being. Our analyzes showed that for levels of anxiety and physical health symptoms, each group’s perception of solidarity was fully explained by its relationship to meaning. For the peer and government solidarity assessments, they were all fully explained their way through the meaning as well, for each wellness outcome. For the sympathetic assessment of the participants’ organization and the general public, the relationships with burnout, PTSD symptoms, and levels of well-being were only partially explained by the mechanism through meaning, indicating that there may be other factors involved in these processes. These findings support the idea that experiencing a lack of solidarity from important social groups, when working in frontline roles, reduces the sense of meaning in life, which in turn negatively influences well-being.
Until now, occupational factors that influence workers’ stress and health were generally considered within the context of work. The results of our study show the importance of factors that are often overlooked in addition the workplace in influencing the individual’s experience of meaning and health outcomes. Specifically, we show that external factors, such as a feeling of solidarity on the part of the government and the public, can be important factors in the experience of occupational stress and consequent impact on health and well-being. These findings also reiterate the importance of experiencing meaning when working in highly stressful and demanding contexts. These findings are important because the feeling of solidarity has changed over time, with many frontline workers feeling that their efforts during the pandemic have not been met with solidarity from others. Perhaps if supportive rhetoric from leadership and the public had continued, along with behavior that promotes solidarity, some negative welfare outcomes would have been mitigated.
To cushion the damage, leaders must express feelings of solidarity, speak in the language of compassion and support, and ensure that conduct aligns with that sentiment during times of social crisis such as a pandemic and war. Governments set the tone for the nation and therefore must lead with words and actions of solidarity with those who are risking their health and lives to keep us safe.
The study, “Solidarity Assessment, Meaning and Well-Being Markers in Frontline Workers in the UK and Ireland During the Covid-19 Pandemic“, was authored by Rachel C. Sumner and Elaine L. Kinsella.