UCL Institute of Health Informatics


New Paper: Mental Health of ICU Staff over the COVID-19 Winter Surge

12 April 2022

The winter of 2020-2021 saw an unprecedented surge of critically ill COVID-19 patients in Intensive Care Units across England, causing huge strain on the staff working there. A new study reports on a series of cross-sectional surveys carried out from November 2020 to May 2021.

Black and white image of hospital doctors, nurses and other staff in a packed hospital during Covid-19 2020. Every bed is full with patients. Potential TW - hospitals, sickness

ICU staff experienced poor mental health, corresponding with the peak of the COVID-19 surge. The majority of respondents met the threshold for poor mental health. There were also high levels of probable functional impairment (over 50%) on a scale that has the potential to negatively impact the safety and quality of patient care. Younger, less experienced and nursing staff were most likely to report probable mental health disorders.

Employers should ensure that all staff working in ICUs are provided with suitable support. In addition to ensuring psychologically healthy workplaces, managers should also recognise the need for strategies such as adequate resourcing and staffing so that individuals reporting high levels of distress can be rested or temporarily rotated away from higher intensity roles. This requires that the demand for healthcare services is matched by the available supply of staff and resources, although the exceptional nature of the pandemic made planning and resourcing difficult.

The study suggests that staff’s mental health should improve as workload intensity decreases. However, there is a risk of sustained impairment if demand in this setting continues to outstrip capacity. These findings provide a case for the establishment of a coherent and comprehensive recovery strategy, which appropriately matches demand for healthcare with NHS capacity and human resource, with the goal of protecting staff so that they can continue to deliver safe, high quality patient care.

The paper was led by Charlotte Hall and Joanna Milward at the Behavioural Science and Insights Unit of the UK Health Security Agency, and also involved Henry Potts (Institute of Health Informatics) and Tristan Caulfield (Department of Computer Science) from UCL. The work builds on the initial ICU mental health survey conducted by Neil Greenberg, Kevin Fong and colleagues (Occupational Medicine, 2021;71(2):62-7).

Read the full paper