A new psychological study of the CV19 Heroes project has been published with the international magazine Social Sciences and Medicine (SSM) Mental Health. In this study, we aimed to understand what factors may be associated with the well-being of frontline workers 12 months after the pandemic, with a particular focus on solidarity. Results show that frontline workers’ perceptions of government and public solidarity were important to their well-being and could be an important protective factor during periods 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 pandemic began in 2020. Across multiple studies, using multiple methods, we explore the experiences of frontline workers from health and social care, essential retail, emergency services, and more. While each occupational sector and role faced different challenges, our research is based on the belief that all frontline workers faced new situations, pressures, and prolonged periods of distress brought on by the pandemic, and that their experiences are influenced by social factors. and broader cultures.
In late 2020, we conducted interviews with participants to learn about their recent experiences working on the frontline during the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK and Ireland. The findings of these interviews highlighted something quite novel: feeling the solidarity of the government and the public was very important to them. In essence, solidarity refers to shared goals where both parties share that goal and commit to achieving it together, despite encountering some adversity in achieving those goals. Solidarity was palpable at the start of the pandemic (eg, in relation to mutual protection from coronavirus), but for many frontline workers, this did not hold up over time. Participants noted that incidents of rule-breaking by leadership appeared to be instrumental in dissolving solidarity. Inspired by these novel findings, we conceptualize a theory of solidarity evaluation as a potentially important aspect of occupational stress and burnout.
The underlying premise of the solidarity assessment is this: that in an occupational context where your outcomes as a worker depend on the action (or inaction) of others, their solidarity with you as a worker matters. To put this in the context of the pandemic, those in health care, who have been working to combat the immediate and direct impacts of Covid-19, have needed the public to work with them to make their work more manageable. They have needed the public to do everything they can to minimize the spread of infection so that their workplaces are not overwhelmed and can handle the trauma and distress of the fallout from this new pathogen to the best of their ability.
In the early stages of the pandemic, when leaders spoke very forcefully about supporting frontline workers (sometimes referred to as “key” workers or “essential” workers), and the public meticulously adhered to health regulations public, this feeling of solidarity was strong. Over time, however, and with the very notable flouting of the rule by leading figures in both the UK and Ireland, this feeling of solidarity waned. 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 posting of rule breaking seen across the news and social media, led many of our participants to lose their sense of meaning, with one participant saying:
“Every day my team asks me why bother? Why do they continue to risk their lives without giving thanks and find out that the government has violated so many of their own Covid laws?”.
To test our solidarity assessment theory, we analyzed our 12-month survey data to examine associations between key groups’ perceptions of solidarity (participants’ colleagues, their organization, their country government, and the audience) and your fitness markers. and mental health. Given that our participants had indicated that a lack of solidarity was undermining their sense of meaning in life, and that we have shown that meaning protects against negative psychological outcomes, we examined frontliners’ feelings of meaning over time. Our data shows that participants’ sense of meaning had significantly decreased from baseline (March 2020) to our 12-month point (March 2021). Therefore, we use this meaning marker as a potential way to explain the relationships 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, anxiety levels, well-being, and physical health symptoms 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 more solidarity from their colleagues and their organizations than from the government of their respective countries or from the public. The analysis revealed that participants’ assessment of solidarity in each group was related to their well-being. Participants’ assessment of public solidarity correlated with all well-being outcomes: lower solidarity predicted worse well-being.
Next, we wanted to see if meaning was a potential mechanism explaining 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 peer and government solidarity ratings, this was also fully explained by its path through meaning, for each well-being outcome. For the organization’s solidarity assessment of participants and the general public, relationships with burnout, PTSD symptoms, and levels of well-being were only partially explained by mechanism through meaning, indicating that there may be other factors involved in these processes. These findings offer support for the idea that experiencing a lack of solidarity from important social groups while working in front-line roles reduces meaning in life, which in turn negatively influences well-being.
Until now, the occupational factors that influence the stress and health of workers have usually been considered within the work context. The findings of our study show the importance of factors that are often overlooked beyond the workplace to influence individual experience of meaning and health outcomes. Specifically, we show that external factors, such as a feeling of solidarity from government and the public, can be important factors in the experience of job stress and the subsequent 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 were not met with the solidarity of others. Perhaps if supportive rhetoric from leaders and the public had continued, coupled with behavior promoting solidarity, some negative well-being outcomes might have been mitigated.
To cushion the damage, leaders must express feelings of solidarity, speak the language of compassion and support, and ensure behavior aligns with that sentiment, in times of social crises like pandemics and wars. Governments set the tone for the nation and therefore must lead with words and deeds in solidarity with those who are risking their health and lives to keep us all safe.
The study, “Assessing solidarity, meaning and markers of well-being in frontline workers in the UK and Ireland during the Covid-19 pandemic,” was authored by Rachel C. Sumner and Elaine L. Kinsella.