A new psychological study from the CV19 Heroes project has been published with 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 particular focus on solidarity. The results show that frontline workers’ perceptions of government and public solidarity were important for their well-being and may be an important protective factor during times of job 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. Across several Studies, using multiple methods, we explored the experiences of frontline workers from the health and social care sectors, essential retail, emergency services and beyond. Although each professional sector and each role has faced different challenges, our research is motivated by the idea that all frontline workers have faced new situations, pressures and prolonged periods of distress triggered by the pandemic, and that their experiences are influenced by broader social and cultural factors.
At the end of 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 conclusions of these interviews highlighted something quite new: the feeling of solidarity on the part of the government and the public was very important to them. Essentially, solidarity refers to the sharing of goals where both parties share that goal and are committed to achieving it together, despite some difficulties encountered in achieving those goals. Solidarity was palpable at the start of the pandemic (for example, regarding mutual protection against the coronavirus), but for many frontline workers this has not been sustained over time. Participants noted that the implications of leadership breaking rules seemed to play a central role in the dissolution of solidarity. Inspired by these new findings, we conceptualized an appraisal theory of solidarity as a potentially important aspect of stress and burnout.
The underlying premise of the solidarity assessment is that in a work 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, medical professionals, who have been working to combat the immediate and direct impacts of Covid-19, have needed the public to work with them in order to make their work more manageable. They need the public to do what they can to minimize the spread of infection so that their workplaces are not overwhelmed and they can best deal with the trauma and distress of the aftermath of this new pathogen. .
At the start of the pandemic, when leaders spoke very strongly about supporting frontline workers (sometimes called “key” or “essential” workers) and the public scrupulously abided by public health regulations, this sense of solidarity was strong. Over time, however, and with the very notable breach of the rule by leaders in the UK and Ireland, that sense of solidarity has diminished. Yet frontline workers were still working and experiencing the tragedies of Covid-19 every day. The constant struggle and effort, coupled with the very frequent publicity of the rule violation seen on the news and social media, led many of our participants to lose their senses, with one saying:
“Every day my team asks me why do they care? Why do they continue to put their lives on the line mercilessly and find that the government has broken so many of their own Covid laws?”.
To test our theory of solidarity evaluation, we analyzed data from our 12-month survey to examine associations between perceptions of solidarity of key groups (participants’ colleagues, their organization, their country’s government and the public) and markers of their physical condition. and mental health. Since our participants had reported that lack of togetherness undermined their meaning in life, and we had demonstrated that meaning protects against negative psychological outcomes, we examined frontliners’ feelings of meaning over time. Our data shows that participants’ sense of meaning had declined significantly between baseline (March 2020) and our 12-month point (March 2021). Thus, we used this marker of meaning as a potential way to explain the relationships between solidarity and worker well-being.
To assess the well-being of frontline workers, we measured participants’ levels of burnout, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety levels, well-being and physical health symptoms that are often associated with severe stress (such as the presence of headaches, trouble 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 more solidarity from their colleagues and their organizations than from the government or the public of their respective countries. The analysis revealed that participants’ appreciation of each group’s solidarity was related to their well-being. Participants’ appreciation of public solidarity was related to all well-being outcomes – lower solidarity predicting lower well-being.
Next, we wanted to see if meaning was a potential mechanism that explained how solidarity could be related to physical and mental well-being. Our analyzes showed that for the levels of anxiety and physical health symptoms, the perception of solidarity of each group was fully explained by its relationship to meaning. For colleagues and government solidarity ratings, these were all fully explained by their journey through meaning as well, for each well-being outcome. For the solidary evaluation of the organization of participants and the general public, relationships with burnout, PTSD symptoms, and levels of well-being were only partially explained by the mechanism by meaning, this which indicates that other factors may be involved in these processes. These results support the idea that the lack of solidarity from important social groups, while working in frontline roles, reduces the meaning of life, which in turn negatively influences well-being.
Until now, occupational factors that influence workers’ stress and health have generally been considered in the context of work. The results of our study show the importance of often overlooked factors beyond the workplace by influencing the individual experience of meaning and health outcomes. Specifically, we show that external factors such as a sense of government and public solidarity can be important factors in the experience of work stress and its subsequent impact on health and well-being. These results also reiterate the importance of experiencing meaning when working in highly stressful and demanding contexts. These findings are important because the sense of solidarity has changed over time, with many frontline workers feeling that their efforts during the pandemic have not been met by the solidarity of others. Perhaps if the supportive rhetoric from leaders and the public had continued, coupled with behavior that promotes solidarity, some negative well-being outcomes would have been mitigated.
To cushion the damage, leaders must express feelings of solidarity, speak with the language of compassion and support, and ensure that conduct aligns with this feeling, in times of societal crises such as the pandemic and the war. Governments set the tone for the nation and therefore must lead the way with words and deeds of solidarity with those who risk their health and lives to keep us all safe.
The study, “Assessment of solidarity, meaning and markers of well-being among frontline workers in the UK and Ireland during the Covid-19 pandemic”, was authored by Rachel C. Sumner and Elaine L Kinsella.