Change and Challenge: Personal impacts for staff supporting vulnerable groups

Sarah Armstrong shares findings from our survey of organisations. Staff have been stepping up to the increased demands on services, but this has not happened without some negative impacts on their wellbeing.

The pandemic required significant change to the way work is done in organisations supporting the most isolated and marginalised. This has initiated some changes that may be positive for organisations resulting in better ways of working post-pandemic. However, on a personal level, most respondents mentioned negative impacts, some quite severe, of their work. This was particularly the case for those working or volunteering in services supporting domestic abuse and sexual violence survivors. Exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed and the emotional toll of working in one’s own home to support those facing destitution, hunger and safety concerns was large. This work is also gendered, with many more women than men responding to the survey.

This briefing reports on an analysis of two questions in our organisational survey about the personal impacts on staff in organisations working with excluded and isolated people; paraphrased, these are:

  • Since lockdown until now, have you or others in your organisation used personal resources to continue your service or carry out your work?
  • Please list the ways you or your staff have been affected during the pandemic.

A note on method: A total of 63 responses were received from 56 different organisations taking the survey between July and October 2020. For this analysis, about 40 open-ended comments were analysed in addition to closed question responses. Respondents generally worked in one of the four areas that are the focus of this study: refugees and asylum-seekers (RAD), domestic abuse and sexual violence (DASV), disability and long-term health condition( DHC) or criminal justice system involvement (CJS). Some worked in multiple areas and were categorised as BAME women’s or community development organisations. The most responses were received from DASV and RAD services. See the briefing About the Survey.

Stepping up to the challenge, wearing down from the pressure – divergent messages

There was no uniform way that staff responded to or were affected by working during a pandemic. “Different people within the team have experienced COVID differently” (Staff member at CJS organisation). This had to do with a person’s home situation and relationships, the kind of work they do and whether they had been affected by Covid-19. “Some have coped very well, while others are struggling.” (Staff member at a different CJS organisation)

There were challenges associated both with living with others (partner, children; see below) and those living on their own. For the latter, boredom, isolation and the loss of social interaction from work were issues.

“I was feeling very isolated whilst working because of my living situation so I felt lonely and found it hard to manage emotions for a while.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

We also note some divergence in responses corresponding to the role that respondents had in their organisations: 33 (52%) worked at an Executive, Senior Management (of policy or strategy), while 27 (43%) played an operational, direct services role. Executives and senior managers tended to praise the ways their teams had stepped up to the challenge of adapting to working in a pandemic and also to give examples of how they were supporting staff.

“We have conducted individual interviews with every member of staff about their work environments, wellbeing, and concerns about the return to the workplace.” (Staff member at CJS organisation)

Those directly providing services or overseeing those who do shared more negative comments about how the personal impacts of work (and see below):

“I feel completely isolated and unsupported. the informal support you get from being in an office or around other workers can be small be makes a massive difference to how you are impacted by day to day situations.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

Paying to help, but that’s (mostly) ok

A graph showing the personal resources staff have needed to use in order to carry out their work, with a majority using their own non-work phone, non-work computer and other personal equipment, and almost a third needing to use their own money.

Most people are using their own phones (78%) and computers (62%) to work from home. (Some noted this was temporary.) A majority are also using other personal items or resources (56%), such as stationery, buying office workstation equipment and furniture, or commented on the costs of heating, lighting and other utilities (e.g. to support internet access). Nearly a third (30%) mentioned using their own money to support their work.

However, despite some of the more surprising comments about personally paying to support their work, most commented that this was not a problem, and might even be thought of as a duty. To be sure, some raised concerns about blurred boundaries or sustainability of this, but others said:

“It’s normal. We are all volunteers and use our own gear and make little claim on our finances.” (Staff member at DHC organisation)

“every person I feel has a moral responsibility to do what they can. Any personal resource I have used is because I choose to.” (Staff member at community development organisation)

In contrast, questions that asked about personal impact of working during a pandemic revealed a number of more concerning impacts on people’s homes, relationships and lives. These themes are presented next.

A graph showing the ways that staff members have been affected during the pandemic, with many reporting longer hours, more time off due to sick leave, increased stress and anxiety, and a negative effect on home life.

Paying through worsening health and wellbeing, and it’s not ok

Exhaustion ran through comments from survey respondents: exhausting work, exhaustion managing work and home life, growing levels of fatigue in doing emotionally demanding labour.

This toll is reflected in the numbers:

  • 62% said they experienced stress or anxiety working during the pandemic
  • 52% are working longer hours
  • 32% had taken sick leave (non-Covid-19, often stress-related)

 And in open-ended comments:

“Huge impact on my health and wellbeing. Nightmares about going to work, teeth grinding, panic attacks. Pain from unsuitable desk. Tension within the team over handling of the situation. Considering leaving this job.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

The stresses of work related to shifting to online forms of working, maintaining links with service users, looking after children and more. We do note that a minority of people said their working life had not changed much (6 respondents) and/or their mental and physical health had not been significantly affected (8). For most, however, we saw a high personal cost especially for people working to support those surviving domestic violence, as can be seen by the larger proportion of comments coming from this group than other areas of work.

“The staff are burnt out and our levels of secondary traumatisation/ vicarious trauma have likely increased a great deal.” (Staff member at DASV organisation, responding to a question about messages for Government)

It is notable that this kind of work is also gendered: where we could infer gender from responses (in 41 cases), 83% of responses were received from women.

Tough work intruding into home life

Eroding boundaries between work and home life as well as the specific challenges of looking after and schooling children at home were dominant themes of comments. Nearly 60% of respondents (36 people) said their home life or relationships had been affected by working in a pandemic. This often was connected to the nature of work people do. Confidential and distressing information were aspects of people’s work that accompanied a sense of feeling overwhelmed and stressed.

“I have worked continuously during lockdown in addition to looking after and homeschooling two small primary school age children at home 24/7 so I have had many double shifts and early mornings/late nights working around family needs. This has been stressful and exhausting.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

“Supporting survivors in workers own homes has been difficult, invasion of personal, private, safe place for workers.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

“I have no dedicated space in my home that is private enough to have conversations about abuse, child protection and risk assessment and am exposing my own children to language that they would not normally be exposed to.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

Respondents mentioned a few of the issues that illustrate the emotional intensity of their work such as helping people who are dealing with, for example: destitution, hunger and food issues, suicidal thoughts and mental health challenges, and rape and abuse.

Adapting, and sometimes finding better ways of working

Change and challenge were clear themes of how working has shifted during the pandemic. For managers/executives, this meant covering staff gaps due to sickness or new demand, securing necessary equipment for staff and service users and finding ways to support their staff, e.g. through: team or one-to-one meetings to check-in, ensuring annual leave is taken and so on. (See also our briefing on Funding.)

“I think we as a team have managed as well as we could under the circumstances and tried to keep offering support. Always with high anxiety that we might be placing others or ourselves at risk especially in the beginning.” (Staff member at RAD organisation)

“Personally I have been proud of our response to our community need”. (Staff member at community development organisation)

“This was a trying time and many people were anxious and on edge. Where working relationships and friendships have been strained it is important to take this in context of the situation, forgive, and move forward as a team” (Staff member at CJS organisation, responding to a question about further views)

“It has been extremely difficult, traumatic and deeply divisive and has exacerbated existing issues within the organisation.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

Not only the means but the nature of work changed for some, with new services being needed or a shift to crisis work, and suspension of other activities (see our briefing on Changes to Services), and this had human costs for staff:

“I also feel abandoned by my senior managers, who shifted the focus to crisis work, I have been left hanging with no direction or space to discuss anything.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

“My role changed from being community based service delivery to solely working from home and online delivery, I found that I was working split shifts, additional hours to fit around family life … This has proved challenging and more difficult as time has progressed.” (Staff member at CJS organisation)

Not all change has been bad (see also our briefing on Positives). Facing a rapid shift to ways and areas of working facilitated more effective approaches and showed the agility of smaller organisations to respond to change. There is a sense of many staff and organisations rising to the challenge and finding in some cases ways of working they will keep post-pandemic:

“many challenges throughout lockdown but have also identified many positive aspects and new ways of supporting women” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

“My experience is that small, grass roots and third sector organisations were able to adapt quickly and effectively to meet the immediate needs of the communities we are embedded in.” (Staff member at RAD organisation)

“Our team have adapted remarkably well to Covid related changes and we feel there have been some positive benefits for example homeworking helping wellbeing.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

“We have worked well to change our approach and under current crisis the team have responded well to a new way of working.” (Staff member at CJS organisation, responding to a question about further views)

Sometimes people found ways of maintaining face to face contact, though this presented its own challenges:

“We have managed to make socially distanced visits but these have taken place in the back garden or close area. This is not always appropriate particularly if raining or for confidentiality” (Staff member at RAD organisation)

Conclusion

This briefing has addressed different aspects of the impact on staff of working in sensitive areas during a pandemic. Like many sectors, working from home has become the norm. However, the people who need these services may rely on face to face and emergency forms of care with specific implications for the hours worked and for anxiety about unmet needs. There is a strong sense of mission for many, but clear and sometimes quite worrying levels of personal stress and health consequences for most. It is also important to note that work being carried out by services is gendered, and mostly done by women.

These responses mainly came in over the summer of 2020, and it is unclear how these impacts will worsen or wane as we move into winter. There are signs that the coming months carry a degree of foreboding and concern about the level of demand building up for services that have had to be suspended, as well as staff levels of stress over the long haul.

“We anticipate longer-term low-level mental health and wellbeing issues, even after the return to ‘normal’.” (Staff member at CJS organisation)

Sarah Armstrong (@SarahAinGlasgow) is Professor of Criminology at the University of Glasgow and co-lead of the Scotland in Lockdown study.