Nurses and women healthcare workers are most likely to experience psychological distress during a pandemic such as Covid-19, according to a global review.

The research, from scientists at the University of Sheffield, also found that younger healthcare professionals were more likely to report this form of emotional suffering compared to their older colleagues.

The experts said that psychological distress could persist for up to three years after an initial outbreak.

In their review, published in the journal Frontiers In Psychiatry, the team has laid out a new framework which can be used by healthcare providers to identify those most at risk of increased distress.

The researchers analysed data from previous infectious disease outbreaks, including Covid-19, Sars, bird flu, swine flu and Ebola.

Dr Fuschia Sirois, reader in social and health psychology from the University of Sheffield, and lead author of the review said: “Consistent evidence indicated that being female, a nurse, experiencing stigma and having contact or risk of contact with infected patients were the biggest risk factors for psychological distress among healthcare workers.

“By analysing data from previous infectious disease outbreaks such as Sars, bird flu and swine flu, it appears that distress for healthcare workers can persist for up to three years after the initial outbreak.

“As the world continues to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, it is so important that we identify the healthcare workers who are most at risk for distress and the factors that can be modified to reduce distress and improve resilience.”

Staff on a hospital ward
A new framework has been created to identify those most at risk of increased distress (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Dr Sirois said that personal and organisational social support, sufficient information about the outbreak and proper protection, training and resources, and feeling in control, were associated with less distress.

She added: “It was interesting to see that factors such as age didn’t appear to have a significant impact, even during Covid-19.

“In some studies, older people weren’t distressed – perhaps because they had worked as healthcare professionals for many years and therefore felt more equipped in dealing with an outbreak – whereas younger people who are physically less likely to be affected by the infectious disease tended to be less experienced in dealing with an outbreak professionally, therefore causing them to be more distressed.”

As part of the next steps, Dr Sirois and her team are conducting further research with NHS workers using their new framework to help identify factors which could help to reduce distress during Covid-19.

It comes as another recent study revealed hospital healthcare workers reported higher rates of clinically significant mental health symptoms following the initial Covid-19 pandemic peak in the UK.

It found women, as well as staff based on inpatient wards, emergency departments, and intensive therapy units, had an increased likelihood of clinically significant post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.

Commenting on the research, Kim Sunley, national officer at the Royal College of Nursing, said: “Nurses – wherever they work – are under enormous strain every day of their working lives.

“They are exhausted and tell us that they are running on empty.

“Safe staffing and appropriate pay are key priorities related to wellbeing that we are campaigning on.

“Today, there are approximately 50,000 registered nurse vacancies in the NHS in the UK, impacting patient safety, and morale and wellbeing in the profession – and at a time when these are crucial.

“It must be a priority for employers and government from now on to protect both their physical safety and mental health now and in the future.”