Workplace support can protect healthcare professionals against adverse mental health and burnout

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Amongst healthcare professionals, the feeling of being supported in the workplace can protect them against adverse mental health and burnout, according to a new study published in CMAJ Open by researchers at Queen Mary University of London and medical staff at various hospitals across the UK.

CoPE-HCP study was designed, during the early part of COVID-19 pandemic, when there was great concern for the mental health of healthcare professionals with no scientifically proven mitigating strategies to reduce that impact. Funded by Barts Charity, this new longitudinal study found that feeling unsupported at work was associated with an increased risk of depression, anxiety, insomnia, burnout, and mental wellbeing, compared to those who felt supported. Interestingly, when these people were followed up, those with improved feelings of workplace support were also shown to have improvements in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and mental wellbeing over time.

The study involved two online surveys assessing the rates of depression, anxiety, insomnia, burnout, and low mental wellbeing. In both surveys, it was concerning that 22% of healthcare professionals felt unsupported in the workplace, which rose to one in four (25%) HCPs feeling this just a few months later. Compared to those who felt unsupported, those who felt supported had a decreased risk of depression (58% reduction and 56% reduction at baseline and follow-up, respectively), anxiety (58% reduction and 39% reduction), insomnia (42% reduction and 54% reduction), emotional exhaustion (65% reduction and 55% reduction), and a 3-fold increased risk of good mental wellbeing. Furthermore, improved perceptions of workplace support was associated with reduced depression and anxiety symptoms, and increased mental wellbeing symptoms over the four month period.

The survey also allowed participants to state what types of support they felt were effective or desired. Five overarching themes were generated relating to 1) concern or recognition regarding welfare, 2) information, 3) tangible qualities of the workplace, 4) leadership, and 5) peer support.

This important study not only demonstrates the consistent association between workplace support and mental health and burnout in healthcare professionals, but for the first time it shows that the feeling of being supported significantly protects them against developing mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. We have furthermore demonstrated what constitutes effective workplace support- simple things such as increased visibility of senior leaders and approachability can do wonders, aside from other measures. These findings will be able to inform significant changes in the workplace guidance targeted at improving mental wellbeing in healthcare professionals".

Dr Ajay Gupta, senior author, chief investigator and Clinical Reader at Queen Mary and Honorary Consultant in Clinical Pharmacology and Cardiovascular Medicine

The study is among the first to evaluate the relationship between changes in feeling supported at work and changes in mental health and burnout over time in healthcare professionals and identifies the specific workplace aspects valuable to protecting their mental health during pandemics.

Many healthcare professionals in the study desired managers who listened and left staff feeling understood, and they valued consistent clear and transparent information sent on a timely manner. Additionally, adequate staffing was highly important, and qualities such as visible and approachable leadership, and camaraderie and solidarity amongst peers were also valuable.

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