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Surviving COVID: The impact of the pandemic on the mental health of NHS workers A short film about those caring for COVID-19 patients

21 December 2020

About 2 mins to read

The Health Foundation supported a Channel 4 documentary, Surviving COVID, to enhance understanding of the impact of COVID-19.

This film illustrates the impact of the pandemic on the mental wellbeing of NHS workers and highlights the importance of providing emotional support to them at this challenging time and into the future.

Many health care staff have gone above and beyond to provide care for both COVID-19 and other patients, often placing themselves at personal risk. Some have faced extremely stressful circumstances that have had a long-term impact on their mental health.  

Health care workers have been central to the global fight against coronavirus and have been held up by the UK public as a national symbol of hope. It is important that the government and health care employers use this opportunity to put in place sustainable practical and psychological support for staff, ensuring that action is taken to both minimise impacts on mental health in the short-term and to better support staff wellbeing in the future.

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Please note that this film contains scenes that viewers may find upsetting.

Dr Tom Best (in Spanish): Hello. Joaquin. I am Thomas. Doctor. Can you understand me?

Dr Tom Best: The rate was so extraordinary in March. Suddenly within two weeks we were all completely overwhelmed and had twice as many intensive care patients as we normally had.

Chris Thomas [critical care matron]: To say 'scarred' is a bit overdramatic, but people won't ever forget this. It was shocking. The nurses suddenly had to double their workload and look after two, sometimes three patients. And these could be nurses who had only been working in critical care for a few months.

Niall McDermott [ITU occupational therapist]: We just all felt quite fearful of everyone and each other and worried that we were going to be giving this to our loved ones. And then when they're at home, they're worried about us coming home. And then you didn't know where to be and what to be, really.

Dr Tom Best: Most people were worried if they got it, they'd get really ill. And they're worried about getting it, you know. I was determined not to get it and not give it to my family and I failed on both, you know. And I felt some degree of guilt, probably, if I'm honest – which I think a lot of, all our colleagues had a bit and I know some of my colleagues came back too early and then got sick again and went home.

Chris Thomas: The amount of staff sickness that we had to manage was huge. Some nurses did leave because they didn't feel they could cope.

Dr Dalia Sayed: The risk level went up and I think there wasn't that much acknowledgement at the time about the personal sacrifices that were being made. I mean, I personally do know somebody who did pass away. He was an NHS worker. It does get to you and the impact that had was massive.

Chris Thomas: Now normally I walk out of the gate of the hospital and I've left it all behind. But COVID was different, I couldn't see anybody. Nobody even wanted to see me because, you know, I, I represented COVID. And I felt completely isolated.

Dr Dalia Sayed: Being in work all day, dealing with COVID patients, and then going home and hearing all night the news about COVID patients, being aware that you're in the middle of a lockdown, and the normal things that you do to de-stress you can't do. That was challenging. When I did see quite a few nasty things, it did, it did have an impact because, you know, you'd see things in your head sometimes at night-time, just a flash and I'd remember somebody's face. I think people forget that I could easily cry if I wanted to but it’s not, it’s not sustainable. You have to detach yourself slightly.

Douglas Dillard [critical care nurse]: Hi David. I'm just going to give you a wee wash, alright?

Douglas Dillard: Because of the intensity of the situation, it's always life and death, so you just get to know them really well. And even in death it's a privilege to be there because it's the last moment.  I see that as a privilege as well. There we go.

Chris Thomas: I think some people have had post-traumatic stress. I've got one nurse on our unit, really an excellent nurse. There's one particular bay on our unit, she can't go in there. She just can't go in there. She gets flashbacks from a terrible shift she had in there.

Dr Dalia Sayed: I know a lot of the nurses and doctors and I know a lot of them who are struggling.

Chris Thomas: I do know that on their days off, a lot of staff would be in tears and they couldn't really account for it. So I can only imagine the anxiety that's sitting there.

Dr Dalia Sayed: I think we have a problem in the NHS, which is that we don't really talk about mental health enough. And I think there's a danger that if you talk about it, people think you're just not tough enough.

Chris Thomas: I think we're very good at burying things and thinking it's OK and I think it's not OK. We do need to be much more vocal and acknowledge things that have caused huge traumas. And I think COVID really, it's caused more people a huge amount of stress. It's massive. And hopefully some good will come of this and mental health will be really looked after as a priority now.

About the documentary and short film series

The Health Foundation supported a Channel 4 documentary, Surviving COVID, to enhance understanding of the impact of the pandemic.

This series of four short videos delves further into the issues raised by the documentary. They are drawn from footage captured by the filmmakers Sandpaper Films as part of Surviving COVID, along with additional perspectives and experiences. The series aims to highlight the different ways that COVID-19 has affected people, their families, health care workers and the health system.


With thanks to everyone who shared their deeply personal experiences as part of Surviving COVID.

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this video, find details of organisations that can offer help and support on the Channel 4 website:

Further reading

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