'You don't always have to be strong'

Jessica explains how specialist mental health support helped her cope with the psychological trauma of being redeployed to an ITU

“There was a point where I felt I couldn’t talk to anyone,” says Jessica Filoteo, describing the moment she knew she needed help to deal with the pressures she was experiencing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like many other RCN members, Jessica had been redeployed within her trust to ensure adequate staffing in areas where demand was highest. For her, that meant moving from the trust’s cardiac catheterisation laboratory to an intensive treatment unit (ITU).

The days were long and the work very stressful. “Especially for the first few weeks, it was overwhelming,” she says.

I felt consumed. I was constantly on edge and would cry for no particular reason

She found it hard to sleep and when she did, she would dream about work. 

“On my days off I was extremely exhausted. I felt consumed. It was awful. I was constantly on edge and would cry for no particular reason.”

Her partner was sympathetic and tried to support her. “But that just ended up frustrating me because I felt like he was trying to solve my problems whereas I just really wanted to talk.”

She wrote an article about her experiences. A mental health coach read it and contacted her, offering free support over the phone. They ended up talking once a week for all the time she was redeployed. He helped in identifying problem areas and suggested ways of bringing about improvement.

“He gave me specific tasks and I would give him feedback the next week and tell him how it went,” says Jessica.

As well as the practical support the coach offered, simply having someone who listened was helpful.

“I know he was a stranger, but he had a different way of responding. He let me vent without making me feel like I was being a burden.”

Cathartic release of emotions

Meanwhile, at work, staff had been offered support from an on-site clinical psychologist. Jessica took up the offer and describes the subsequent sessions as “cathartic, a release of emotions”.

Jessica’s experiences in the face of the pandemic are not unusual.

Tanja Koch, of the RCN counselling service, says many members are facing a range of challenges – they may have contracted COVID-19, be suffering anxiety and stress in relation to their work, health, finances or family, or be experiencing bereavement having lost colleagues or loved ones.

“There’s a multitude of issues that are presenting, it’s not just one thing,” Tanja says. “We find our members are being really pushed in their capacity to cope.”

Once, nursing staff might have been reluctant to admit they needed help, stoically pushing on in the face of rising pressure.

But Tanja suggests a growing psychological awareness in the profession has resulted in increased willingness to ask for help.

Your work, your patients – they matter, but so do you

Knowing when to reach out in a demanding job, or when major change is occurring in your work or personal life, some level of stress and anxiety is normal.

Sleep may be interrupted, or you may have trouble switching off.

"If symptoms subside within a few days or are on and off, then that’s OK,” Tanja says. “If they don’t and they keep going or get worse, then something needs to be done. It’s when those symptoms have a detrimental impact that some additional coping strategies may be necessary.”

The first step, as Jessica found, is finding someone who will listen. Tanja says: “It’s always better to talk about what’s going on.”

Sources of support for health care workers have increased during the pandemic (see below) and many employers – not all – are now better at safeguarding the wellbeing of their staff.

For Jessica, now back in her usual role, talking to the mental health coach and psychologist proved a turning point. So, what’s her message to others who may be suffering as she was?

“Give yourself permission to pause, to refill your cup. Because when you prioritise your own wellbeing, you’ll have more to give to others.”

She adds: “You don’t need to be the strong one all the time. There is absolutely nothing wrong in acknowledging that you too need taking care of.

“Your work, your patients – they matter, but so do you. Don’t ever forget that.”  

Reaching out for help

Try workplace support in the first instance – occupational health, employee assistance programmes, psychology sessions, clinical supervision. See our "Get help" section for what the RCN can offer – everything from counselling to financial and welfare advice.

In England NHS People offers confidential telephone support to staff as well as free access (until the end of December 2020) to various wellbeing apps.

The other UK countries have services dedicated to providing emotional support for health staff and students:

Other sources of support

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